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Questions Of Culture And The Good Fight

Oct 11, 2012  - Craig Lord


The damning USADA report into Lance Armstrong and the USPS cycling team built to further his cycling career is not only significant to the future of the world of wheels but to the culture of sport worldwide, among athletes, coaches, doctors and the federations who run the show. 

Serious questions will now follow for the UCI, the international cycling union, a body where bosses former and current are suing Irish journalist Paul Kimmage. Today, it would seem (and as many believed to be the case), Kimmage wrote nothing but the truth on issues on and related to the Armstrong case and the inability of the prevailing testing regime to catch him. The focus of UCI blazers ought to have been on dealing with the harsh reality in the message rather than on trying to shoot the messenger. 

A UCI spokesman today described the USADA findings as "terrible for the sport of cycling". No, they are not. If all of it is true, fans of clean sport will receive the news like they'd soak in a glorious dawn rising with the hope of a fresh day on a crystal horizon.

Hein Verbruggen, former UCI boss and now IOC member, once said that Armstrong "never, never, never" doped. As he spoke those words, he surely knew that he could not possibly know whether that was so or not. What he meant was that Armstrong had "never, never, never" failed to get past the testing regime in the hands of the UCI and the agencies it employed in the realms of WADA.

Why is all this significant to swimming? Culture. In cycling, the culture, the peer pressure, had long been looking in the wrong direction - "dope, because everyone is doping", was the mantra; the creed "to win you have to be the best at cheating not just competing".

That culture was supported by another, one that pervaded - and still pervades - some international federations and some of their affiliates. Heard the rumour? Something not feeling quite right? Unusual results and performances? Any positive test? No? Right, then the show goes on and we shoot down any questions and any who question with the standard reply of "we're spending millions on testing and decry any who raise suspicion in the absence of a positive test". Alongside that, there are even those in official positions that advocate that the show should go on regardless of any probable cheating, in the face of rules (and vast budgets to back those up) that clearly state "doping and cheating is forbidden".

In 2009, at the Berlin round of the FINA World Cup for FINA, I sat at a table with dignitories from the city of Berlin, leading swimming officials and FINA staff. An amusing comment was made (not by me) about shiny suits and their imminent passing. That prompted a comment by the FINA staff member in support of suits. I asked him what level of research FINA had carried out into the effects of the wide variety of non-textile bodysuits they had passed for use and whether the international federation was able to say with assurance: 'passed fit for use by 12-year-olds and masters of 80 with a spot of blood-pressure trouble alike'. 

It was not FINA's responsibility, he said, if swimmers chose to wear certain suits. A debatable point, I was about to say, when the staff man chipped in with what he thought was a killer line that would end the argument: and anyway, even if they did enhance performance, so what, after all wasn't it thrilling to watch Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich battling to the finish line even if you knew they were doped? My answer was simple: no. Nor was it acceptable for anyone employed or affiliated to FINA in any way to advocate something expressly forbidden in swimming rules.

The FINA Constitution (C5.2) cites among the international federation's objectives:

to provide drug-free sport

Culture in place: we do not do this, we do not condone it, we do not find it amusing, entertaining or in any way, shape or form acceptable.  

But there are those who would rather we all stay silent, turn a blind eye, don't raise issues that are uncomfortable. And if you do, we will make it obvious that you are persona non grata: a badge of honour for any journalist determined to keep asking questions, however harsh or difficult or awkward.

The trouble with the "say-nothing, just report the times and celebrate the show" culture is very clear: it took 11 teammates to come forward before Armstrong's success could officially be placed in context. Important context. Essential context. Without that evidence, sport would continue to be built on foundations of sand. Time to build on solid rock pressed in truth and void of the fear that prevents open discussion of the kind of anomaly so big that it draws the eye of experts and wider world alike. 

There is contradiction to overcome: among those screaming for action against USA Swimming in the crisis over sexual abuse and banning of coaches are those who scream just as loudly that it is wrong to ask questions about clear and significant anomaly in the race pool (even though the winner may well herself be a victim of abuse, as has been the case many a time over in swimming history).

At London 2012, the first day delivered the story of the first woman swimmer in Olympic history to race as fast as men coming home to gold. The way in which a 16-year-old school girl performed wildly beyond the finishing capabilities of any other woman swimmer in the history of the sport (taking in every Games and world and major international championships and world-record swims over a 20-year period), including all her peers, drew the eye beyond all other swims over eight days of racing. 

It drew comment and questions far and wide - and a statement from an American coach whose words were far more reasonable than the brutish response from those who accused him (and those who also raised questions and reported on the matter) of racism and much more. Which is the more aggressive and unreasonable 'accusation': "I think this young girl may be a victim of abuse and we ought to be concerned and make sure that's not the case"; or "you're a racist"? 

Even FINA felt moved to issue a statement in support of the swimmer, a statement in which it noted that the swimmer never tested positive. So what, say any who look at the cases of Jones, Armstrong and others and know the difficult truth in anything that suggests all is well unless there is a positive test to point to.

Neither FINA nor anyone else should have been horrified when SwimNews reported the observations of leading swimming figures behind the scenes at the London 2012 Olympic Games: a 16-year-old swimmer entered a disabled toilet with two team staffers, one male, one female, and the three remained inside for a relatively lengthy period of time before each of the swimmer's gold-medal-winning swims. 

Of course, it is not FINA's role to comment on such things nor make public pronouncements on questions it cannot answer. However, under the surface, its feet ought to be paddling energetically and with the kind of purpose a swan puts into crossing a lake to find food. Was it true? What was a male team staffer doing in a toilet for several minutes on end with a 16-year-old shortly before two Olympic finals? Is there a valid explanation? Has one been asked for? I would wager not. And if it has - what's the answer?

In his life and during his time as a leading light at the heart of FINA's anti-doping programme, Prof James Cameron, a world-leading pathologist, approached his work with the belief that he had first to understand how the criminal would think and act, including the when and where and how of it all, before being able to catch the thief with his hand in the cookie jar. You cannot do that if you don't ask pertinent questions, difficult questions; you cannot do that if you assume people are not cheating because there is no positive test; you cannot do that if you do not actively shed light on dark corners - and set out to do just that. 

No fewer than 11 teammates of Armstrong have helped USADA shed light in a dark corner, one telling of the time he says he babysat Armstrong's house to make sure the fridge containing blood bags was not affected by an expected power cut.

Tim Herman, Armstrong's lawyer, said USADA had "characterised and spun" the evidence to its own end. There had been, he added, no testing of witnesses. All of that could happen if Armstrong submits himself to arbitration, of course. 

Meanwhile, USADA maintains that the evidence is "overwhelming", from the statements of eye witnesses to the financial records, emails and other correspondence and documents that the agency says offer proof of an "undeniable web" of banned practices.

A change of culture is required if sport is to head in the right direction. Many an expert in cycling suggests today that a significant shift has already taken place in their sport, a culture in which peer pressure dictated doping finally giving way to one in which people know and accept that doping is falsehood, embrace the environment in which clean sport is the shining light that avoids anyone straying down the road to ruin, ruin not only for the individual but entire sports. The good that can come from sport has been wasted on a lie far too many times down the years.

There are parallels in realms beyond doping, both outside and inside sport.

In Britain this past week, the family of a former well-known TV and radio celebrity removed the headstone on his grave after more than 40 women came forward to say that they were sexually abused by Sir Jimmy Saville, a name that will mean little to any outside Britain. Many of them were under-age, some based at official institutions for girls, others abused on the premises of the BBC at a time when the national broadcaster was benefitting from high audience share for programmes featuring the alleged abuser. 

Saville is dead, his headstone removed, his knighthood, likely to rot away with his reputation, a reminder of the impregnable culture of abuse that women and young girls suffered as a matter of course each day in their workplace or leisure hours. And all within our lifetimes. 

There are those who point to how much good came about from the money generated by having Saville as a figure head of charities at a time when he was popular - they say that on a day when an elderly lady goes on national TV in Britain to say she watched powerless in a hospital bed some years ago as the man in the news molested a young brain-damaged girl nearby.

There are those who point out today how many people have been helped by Armstrong's cancer foundation. Long may anything last that helps cancer sufferers - but none of that will help Armstrong's reputation if he continues to refuse to stand and account for himself in the face of "overwhelming" evidence that he cheated big time and by doing so got himself to a point where he was able to make charitable contribution a part of his public profile. 

Just as sport conducts inquiries into the presence of bad apples, so too is the BBC conducting an inquiry into Saville, urged on by some of the women for whom having their breasts groped by fellow DJs while live on air was "the norm"; a complaint from one woman to her boss resulted in the response: "So? Are you some kind of lesbian." A British tabloid today runs a vast one-word headline - "Cesspit" - when looking at the culture of abuse said to have existed.

The culture of which so many are speaking and writing about in Britain today is long dead in many places (you can guarantee not all). It was widespread. It existed in swimming circles too among some - but not the majority. Paul Hickson, once Olympic head coach for Britain, went to jail for a long time after being found guilty of rape and sexual abuse of young swimmers. Ireland can relate to those stories too, as can the US and many other countries where there have been scandals over abuse by coaches. The abuse was confined to a small minority and is hardly a problem suffered by swimming alone.

Federations are no more to blame for what happened than the parents of swimmers who accepted financial deals with the abusers of their offspring. But all are responsible for encouraging and insisting on a culture in which no one need ever fear raising a hand and saying "this dark thing is happening - please help me to stop it". It is to that end that USA Swimming, among other bodies, have been working of late. 

The fact is, there was a culture in swimming and diving (the US one of many examples) in which young girls and women (and boys too) - and their parents - had little confidence that turning to the police, other leading authorities and even their clubs - with all the stress and humiliation that went with such things - would lead to a successful prosecution of the guilty; there was a culture in which coaches, swimmers, some federation folk, heard of things, had been told of abuse second or third hand, but could do little about it in the absence of a proper complaint - at a time when proper complaint was rare for the very reason, among others, set out in this paragraph.

If Armstrong falls, he falls because enough of those who were in on the sporting crime with him have had the courage to come forward and say "we cheated, he cheated, big time"; if Saville falls, he falls, beyond the grave sadly, because enough of his victims have now come forward and said "he abused me - and here are the details", as stories from people unconnected connect the dots to a man described today by British criminal authorities as a "serial abuser"; the US coaches who have fallen fell because someone came forward and said "no more".

Bad things fall when people ask questions and speak out. Long before collaborators and victims finally talked and authorities acted, the media has often been there. The allegations against Armstrong have been written far and wide, the likes of Kimmage and David Walsh, both colleagues of mine at The Sunday Times in Britain, at the helm of a wave of journalism and research that was always headed in one direction: the downfall of a man against whom a weight of damning evidence has mounted. 

There is still something in the water: swimming is not entirely clean. We should not fear that. FINA should not fear that. Part of the process of shedding light in dark corners is to raise a hand and speak up when serious anomaly and potential wrong-doing raises its ugly head. 

Some spoke of 'witch-hunt' when the wave of detail that unfolded in the women's 400m medley final at London 2012 spilled into the world media. It was no witch hunt. If a swimmer on world-record pace swims the last 100m of a 400m medley on average 3sec faster than all other finalists and world-record setters at major events (and almost 2sec faster than the best there ever was, even in shiny suits) at any time over the past 20 years and leaves the pool with no sign of breathlessness, we should ask: how? 

And all those running the sport, in China and elsewhere, should be happy for that question to be raised. It may be that there is a genuine answer that all find acceptable; just as it may be that we - not a future generation left to look back and wonder at an alien world full of folk content to let bad practice prosper - can save a shoal of children from suffering abuse before time catches up with the kind of criminality that ruined the lives of victims in the GDR in the 1970s and 80s, in China in the late 1980s and 1990s and changed the lives of all those who were never celebrated as the best that they should have been known as.

International authorities, FINA included, often talk of the anti-doping "fight". The word conveys the right spirit but as Sun Tzu tells us in The Art of War, "know your enemy" is an essential weapon in any battle. You can't know your enemy if you don't ask (or don't want to ask) the right questions.