Skele­ton man

The world’s anti-dop­ing force has ca­pit­u­lated and let Rus­sia off the hook. Ben Sand­ford, Olympian, lawyer and Labour can­di­date tells Phil Tay­lor why he didn’t re­sign as an ath­lete rep in protest.

Weekend Herald - - News -

The world’s anti-dop­ing force has ca­pit­u­lated and let Rus­sia off the hook. Ro­torua man Ben Sand­ford, former Olympic skele­ton racer, lawyer and Labour can­di­date, is the only New Zealand rep­re­sen­ta­tive.

Ben Sand­ford spent the best part of his young life hurtling head­first down icy for­eign moun­tains at up to 150km/h on some­thing akin to an oven tray.

Un­til he re­tired four years ago, aged 35, Sand­ford was a skele­ton racer. The sport took him to three Olympics, gained him a world cham­pi­onship medal and led him into the “bit­ter and com­pli­cated” world of sports pol­i­tics as an ath­lete rep­re­sen­ta­tive.

The route may yet take him to Par­lia­ment. At last year’s elec­tion, Sand­ford gained 31 per cent of the vote as Labour’s can­di­date in the Ro­torua elec­torate, be­hind Na­tional’s Todd McClay, who won 53 per cent. He hopes to stand again in 2020.

At 1.99m and 93kg, and with a wild mop of dark hair, Sand­ford cut a strik­ing fig­ure in his speed suit.

When he sits down for this in­ter­view, he is in a busi­ness suit, with a busi­ness hair­cut, but his choice of a spec­tac­u­larly colour­ful pair of socks speak of his in­di­vid­u­al­ity. He may be back in his home­town, Ro­torua, work­ing at his father’s law firm and liv­ing again in the home he grew up in, but Sand­ford has al­ways beaten his own path.

We talk pol­i­tics and sport in that fam­ily home, a house with grand bones and a sweep­ing view of Lake Ro­torua, while a happy cat naps on a sofa and two dogs slum­ber in a side room.

The talk­ing point is the de­ci­sion to al­low Rus­sia back into the game, de­spite it re­fus­ing to ac­knowl­edge the find­ing it ran a state-or­gan­ised dop­ing op­er­a­tion (the big­gest, ev­i­dence sug­gests, since the East Ger­mans in the 70s and 80s) or hand over thou­sands of sam­ples that could lead to ath­lete bans.

A Guardian head­line: “Wada ap­pears to have com­plied with Rus­sia — wasn’t it meant to be the other way round?” Yes, says Sand­ford. “I’m ab­so­lutely gut­ted. It’s a huge blow for clean ath­letes.”

The World Anti-Dop­ing Agency’s slo­gan is “Play True”, cho­sen in 2002 be­cause, in the agency’s words, “it stands for the univer­sal spirit of sports prac­tised with­out ar­ti­fice and in full re­spect of the es­tab­lished rules”.

It’s a dou­ble stan­dard, says Sand­ford. Clean ath­letes com­ply with a huge amount of reg­u­la­tions in the name of fair sport. “Can we all be held to the same stan­dard please? The look of it is ter­ri­ble. You are ap­peas­ing one of the big­gest coun­tries in the world with the funds to pour into sport.”

Sand­ford is part of a solid Kiwi con­nec­tion to Wada. Welling­ton lawyer David How­man ran the agency from 2003 un­til 2016.

Its ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee last month voted 9-2 to re­in­state Rus­sia’s anti-dop­ing agency, Ru­sada.

New Zealand, rep­re­sent­ing Ocea­nia, and Nor­way voted against. Votes in favour came from the Olympic lobby, which wants Rus­sia at the Games, and from world sport bodies in­cen­tivised by Rus­sia’s will­ing­ness to un­der­write in­ter­na­tional events held on its ter­ri­tory, such as this year’s Foot­ball World Cup.

How­man called it “a tri­umph for money over clean sport”. Sports Min­is­ter Grant Robert­son said the de­ci­sion made it hard for him to look New Zealand ath­letes in the eye.

Some ath­lete rep­re­sen­ta­tives have talked of quit­ting in protest. Sand­ford will stay and fight from within.

“There is no real ath­lete voice around the Wada ex­ec­u­tive board. That has to change. Ath­letes need a voice at the [big] ta­ble and to be able to vote.”

It is in Sand­ford’s na­ture to want to be in­volved in shap­ing rules that af­fect him. That led to him be­ing voted on to the ath­lete com­mit­tee of the In­ter­na­tional Bob­sleigh and Skele­ton Fed­er­a­tion and to sim­i­lar roles on the New Zealand Olympic Com­mit­tee, then Wada.

LIFE MAY have been dif­fer­ent had he been bet­ter at cricket. A sports-mad kid, he was de­ter­mined to rep­re­sent his coun­try, prefer­ably as a Black Cap. When that dream faded, the ob­scure sport of skele­ton was wait­ing.

His un­cle, Bruce Sand­ford, had been world cham­pion. “I thought, if he can turn up from New Zealand and win, why couldn’t I? He wrote me a top-se­cret man­ual, a book. It had ev­ery­thing, the his­tory, his pro­cesses for analysing tracks, the equip­ment I needed, [ad­vice] that I should lis­ten to ev­ery­one, trust no one and de­velop my own the­ory of slid­ing.

“That made me re­alise it wasn’t enough to be phys­i­cally the strongest, you had to un­der­stand the dy­nam­ics of driv­ing and slid­ing and solv­ing the prob­lems on the track.”

It was, Sand­ford says, “weird to sort of step into my un­cle’s shoes”.

“He’d been world cham­pion and that had sort of blown peo­ple’s minds, the fact this New Zealan­der had turned up and beaten them at their own game, the first nonEuro­pean to win a world cham­pi­onship.” And Sand­ford the younger did the fam­ily name proud, win­ning a world cham­pi­onship bronze 30 years af­ter his un­cle’s 1992 suc­cess.

That made Sand­ford and Sand­ford the only peo­ple from the South­ern Hemi­sphere to win world cham­pi­onship medals in skele­ton, bob­sleigh or luge.

The com­mon re­sponse when he men­tions he raced skele­ton is, what is that?

“Then you ask if they saw the movie Cool Run­nings. Then you say, well that is bob­sleigh. We slide down the same track but head first. Then they think you are lucky to be alive.”

Skele­ton emerged in Switzer­land in the late 19th cen­tury, ap­par­ently to amuse Bri­tish hol­i­day­mak­ers.

The seated sledges be­came the bob­sleigh, the stripped-down sleds be­came the skele­ton, so-named be­cause they look like a metal ribcage.

A skele­ton sled is heavy, about 35kg, but also un­nerv­ingly in­con­se­quen­tial for some­thing that car­ries the rider cen­time­tres above the ice at break­neck speed.

“There’s no feel­ing that com­pares. Be­cause you are in a chute and don’t have things fly­ing past, it’s a tun­nelfo­cused sen­sa­tion.

“You don’t have brakes and you are only go­ing to get faster and you have to make it to the bot­tom. When you are new to the sport, know­ing you are locked in for the run is a re­ally bizarre feel­ing.”

Sand­ford was hooked at his first try — at a slid­ing school in Aus­tria.

“The adrenalin and the feel­ing of be­ing on the ice, that sense that you are fly­ing and glid­ing and that you can con­trol that.”

Se­ri­ous ac­ci­dents are rare but do hap­pen. A Ge­or­gian ath­lete was killed when his sled flew out of the chute dur­ing prepa­ra­tion for the 2010 Van­cou­ver Olympics.

“It was an enor­mous shock,” says Sand­ford, who was there.

“They had set out to build a dif­fi­cult track and a fast track but none of us ever thought some­one was go­ing to end up dying.”

Sand­ford de­scribes his un­cle as “a real char­ac­ter” and tells a clas­sic Kiwi story to prove it. Soon af­ter be­com­ing world cham­pion he tried to dig a nat­u­ral slid­ing track on Mt Ruapehu, con­vinced it would be the next sen­sa­tion for thrill-seek­ers af­ter bungee jump­ing.

Usu­ally tracks are made of con­crete and the ice is built up us­ing am­mo­nia gas and an enor­mous re­frig­er­at­ing unit.

The one nat­u­ral track in the world, says Sand­ford, is in St Moritz, Switzer­land, where it is -25C at night.

Ruapehu barely gets be­low freez­ing. Un­cle Bruce per­se­vered and a track of sorts emerged — “a bumpy, lumpy thing, hi­lar­i­ously home­made but also amaz­ing be­cause he did it” — and TV turned up to film the world cham­pion make a run.

“He’s say­ing how ev­ery­one should come and ex­pe­ri­ence skele­ton and how it’s safe and it’s fan­tas­tic but all the while he’s grab­bing his arm [and] as soon as they stop film­ing he’s off to the medic cen­tre.

“An ici­cle had pierced an artery. If you look care­fully you can see blood squirt­ing out be­tween his fin­gers.”

SAND­FORD, WHO is a spe­cial­ist in sports law, misses the ac­tual slid­ing more than the com­pe­ti­tion. He put up his hand in pol­i­tics for the same rea­son he be­came an ath­letes’ rep­re­sen­ta­tive: fair­ness.

He’s lived in a lot of coun­tries, some were “in­cred­i­bly un­fair and un­equal”, and some he thought were on the right track and pur­su­ing poli­cies based on ev­i­dence.

New Zealand, he thought, was head­ing the wrong way.

“I could see the poli­cies we were fol­low­ing and where we were go­ing and I didn’t want to live in a coun­try that took that route.”

A more self­ish coun­try?

“We were be­com­ing a more di­vided coun­try, a coun­try no longer look­ing af­ter the pil­lars that made us what we are, around hous­ing, ed­u­ca­tion, health­care, mak­ing sure we give peo­ple a fair chance, mak­ing sure peo­ple have op­por­tu­nity.”

Peo­ple of­ten com­pli­ment him, he says, for suc­ceed­ing in an in­di­vid­ual sport prac­tised on the other side of the world. But, he says, he came from priv­i­lege: sup­port­ive fam­ily and friends and an un­cle who had blazed the way.

“I’ve been able to get by only through the gen­eros­ity of peo­ple around me, and I’ve been lucky too.”

Claims that Wada was tar­geted by Rus­sian govern­ment hack­ers will ap­pal but not sur­prise him. Nor will of­fi­cial de­nials. “This en­tire [dop­ing] sys­tem has been found out but the Rus­sian au­thor­i­ties have still de­nied that it ex­isted.”

Has Wada been hi­jacked by busi­ness in­ter­ests? Cer­tain peo­ple in the Olympic move­ment, says Sand­ford, have been push­ing to have Ru­sada back for a long time.

“Those peo­ple have got their way. That’s re­ally un­for­tu­nate. I think it is enor­mously dam­ag­ing to the cred­i­bil­ity of Wada and what it stands for, or what Wada should be stand­ing for.” But it’s not a “death blow”. “You need an or­gan­i­sa­tion like Wada to reg­u­late anti-dop­ing on an in­ter­na­tional level.

“If peo­ple are sug­gest­ing get­ting rid of Wada, you are go­ing to have to recreate it in a sim­i­lar fash­ion.” FREE FREE My Flex SIM SIM FREE PRICE DROP SIM

The look of it is ter­ri­ble. You are ap­peas­ing one of the big­gest coun­tries in the world with the funds to pour into sport.

Ben Sand­ford

Pic­ture / Alan Gib­son

Ben Sand­ford will stay and fight: “Ath­letes need a voice at the [big] ta­ble”.

Pho­tos / Getty Images

Ben Sand­ford takes part in the skele­ton heats at the 2014 Win­ter Olympics in Sochi, Rus­sia.

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