A couple of weekends ago I met a pair of Englishmen in an English pub in Moscow. We tanned a few beers, ate and had as wide-ranging a conversation about sports as is possible. It was genuinely refreshing to speak with people who worked on the professional side of sport and continue to contribute to football in the most holistic way.
One topic came up as we watched the battle between Jamie Murray and his partner for the Wimbledon doubles crown – doping. Our talk turned to Serena Williams and the question asked, “Do you think she’s taking something?”. I answered, “Yes. What it is, I don’t know, but the people around her, her weird behaviour and her missed tests. Her massive stamina and ability to keep going at her age, just that alone makes me think something’s not quite right. And unless I am an idiot, she’ll disappear for a few weeks now and come back strong for the US Open.”
Nobody reaches the top-10 without doing something suspect and nobody is as dominant for such a long time without using something. I can name a dozen other players who have deliberately missed tests, or suddenly bulked up or blazed a trail. They asked, what do you mean disappear? “She’ll be injured. When you’re injured you can get a sick note and do what you want.”
Game, set and match. Serena says she’s injured and will rehab her elbow, while doing bikini shoots and training with her French married boyfriend. The same Frenchman who is closely associated with doping doctors and coaches, as well as dopers themselves. A man in whose academy child abuse is not uncommon and young players are told to drink up, no questions asked.
Of course he has not been pulled on much of this as he is a media favourite and sponsors’ boy, plus he works with the world’s number one. It is with real confidence that I will say that to get to the heights Serena has, it was not just Ready Brek and Lyons Tea she was enjoying for breakfast. It’s not just about the muscle tone, it’s everything else around it.
We agreed that it would be hard to find a truly clean sport, especially football. The Fuentes case in Spain hammered cycling, but the links to Barcelona and Real Madrid were allowed slide. Of course Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) in football are not new and certainly not the sole domain of Spanish clubs, yet there were some unsettling issues that were disappeared so that the football family could get onto bigger and better things.
The Louis Garcia del Moral and TenisVal Academy scandal vanished, proving tennis certainly does not have a drug problem – sure aren’t players complaining about being tested being too much! It wouldn’t do to delve too deeply into either sports nasty links with doping.
Cycling’s different though. When Chris Froome burned off his rivals and flew up the Col de la Pierre St Martin to win the 10th stage of this year’s Tour De France, I had a terrible flashback to Floyd Landis riding away from a German rider to win in Morzine almost 10 years before. It was a Thursday, rugby training day, and I was home to grab some rest before heading into the Croatian heat for a pre-season physical session.
Lying on the couch watching Eurosport I was impressed by the American. Landis was amazing and made it look so easy, just as Froome did this year, just as Pantani, Armstrong and many others did before them. So it was a surprise then the ability of the British media to, en masse, back “their man”, it was frighteningly too close to the behaviour of the US media when anyone dared question the former St. Lance.
I am no idiot, I know that getting to the top of sports takes more than a good fry up and feed of pints, but there are limits to what I would recommend or agree to. There are too many dangers involved with the use of PEDs, not least the under studied psychological effects, injuries and long term debilitation. We label those who want to bulk up or go faster or last longer “drug cheats”, when we should be labeling them idiots.
A young footballer who now plays Second Division in Russia asked me if he should go on a training course recommended to him by his agent. It involved working with an athletics coach who also worked with a former tennis client of mine. I told him that if he wanted to live in fear of testers, go for it. If not, then he should go the longer route and grow naturally into his body. He was only 20 with plenty of time to develop into his midfield frame.
His argument was that three of his team-mates were already working out with this trainer and the results were impressive. Two of these lads are now in the Premier League here and one called up for the Russian side. The third was tested by his club and failed, he’s now out of football and living with his parents in a Moscow suburb.
For Serena we’ll need to wait and see, she’s had some recent bust-ups with hitting partners and her boyfriend’s wife has been letting bits slip about her husband’s nefarious activities, so it might be a slow burner, unless the ITF actually do something to clean up their sport. The links between cycling, tennis and football remain, especially when certain doctors are linked within sports.
Current Bayern Munich and former Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola was done for doping in his playing career at a time when other leading stars (including Jaap Stam) failed for nandrolone also. His physician at that time ended up working with Barcelona when the players seemed to have an unending supply of energy that nobody could live with.
Ditto for the Spanish national team. Del Moral had links to a number of clubs in the mid-00s and he proved himself to be a master of blood doping and stamina development in tennis and cycling. So far only cycling has been picked on. With the amount of money at play in football and tennis, and with the scandals surrounding the ITF and FIFA, there would appear to be a case of “Move along, nothing to see here”, unless we stop for a look.
Part 2 – The Spanish non-Inquisition, Football’s Dark Past and Present and a load of Red Bull