London, England
Monday 16th January 2012
Over recent weeks & months, two topics affecting the sporting world have received increased air time as they provoke passionate discussion & debate from the players/athletes, coaches, media & fans alike.

Firstly, the issue of performance-enhancing drugs.  Whilst this has been a long running debate, as both athletics & cycling have fought to clean up their perceived tarnished reputations, it has been pushed back into the spotlight as the BOA faces a legal challenge to its ruling to ban British athletes for life from Olympic competition if convicted as "drugs cheats".  Whilst athletes such as LaShawn Merritt, the American reigning Olympic 400m runner, have been allowed by their national governing body to return to international representative competition after serving their competitive bans following positive tests for doping (Merritt tested positive in October 2010), the BOA stands alone in international Olympic sport, ruling that British athletes cannot currently return to represent Team GB at the Olympic Games.  

Understandably, this precipitates emotional responses from anyone with an opinion on the matter, as many, whilst agreeing in theory with the BOA's stance, feel that it is unjust for British athletes to be treated differently than athletes from any other nation in the World.  Prominent names in each sport have leapt to the defence of their team-mates & correctly point to the work athletes such as David Millar & Dwain Chambers have conducted since receiving their sentences, to educate young athletes on the choices available to them & the repercussions of making poorly informed decisions.  They cite the legal system & state that a sentence once served should be consigned to the past & the individuals concerned should be allowed to move on with their careers, having swallowed the bitter pill.

Others have countered this argument to question how much residual benefit these athletes, that once experienced the training gains made possible by administering illegal ergonomic aids, are still experiencing.  The question is currently an impossible one to answer & the fact is, it is probably indeterminable.  The BOA suggest that the deterrent needs to be the ultimate sacrifice if we are to rid sport of the shadows of a former doping ignorance.

Meanwhile anyone that has the chance to meet the likes of Dwain & David Millar know what pleasant, approachable & personable guys they both are & so the personal element then biases opinion.  I have had the good fortune to work with Dwain & chat about the thorny issues...far from avoiding the subject, he is happy to bring it up & explain what led him to making the decisions that have undoubtedly affected his career as arguably the top British sprinter of his era.  He makes no excuses & he wants no sympathy, fully acknowledging that there are those that vilify him.

Whichever way you look at it, the argument is far from cut & dried & when the decision is finally made in the law courts there will be some unhappy parties that are likely to appeal the ruling.

The second topic that has finally started to get the recognition that the problem requires, is that of mental illness, specifically depression, amongst both participating & recently retired sportsmen & women.  For far too long the matter has been swept under the carpet, considered taboo & too uncomfortable an issue to face full on.  

Sadly, whilst this attitude has reigned supreme, the strategies that could have been put in place to provide support & treatment to those affected have been left unimplemented, whilst the heart-wrenching final chapters of the lives of Gary Speed, Robert Enke, Pierre Quinon & Terry Newton amongst many others has played out before us.  In each case, many have been left shocked that depression had been affecting their close friends & colleagues.  Meanwhile, the statistics regarding suicide don't even consider the countless others that have turned to alcohol & narcotics in an attempt to escape the troubles that haunt them once their careers have spiralled beyond control or have been left behind, along with the structure & purpose upon which they had become so dependant.

If any good can seem to come from such dark episodes, that have led to the lives of so much promise being ended before their full potential has been realised, it is that the problem is now out in the open.  This week has seen more admissions from household names, for example the footballer, Dean Windass, that depression was an everyday spectre that seemed to suck the hope & joy out of the life that lay in front of them. 

One timely case that has recently come to light unites both these topics & is a truly heart wrenching story.  Martin Fagan, the Irish endurance runner, tested positive for erythropoietin (EPO) at an out of competition test in December 2011.  Depression was the reason behind his decision to turn to doping & led him to believe that getting caught was the only way to break the cycle that was bringing down the life that was consuming him.  Click the link below to read the article written by Ian O'Riordan & published in the Irish Times on January 16th, 2012.

In light of these events, we have to ask ourselves some hard & searching questions, that need some urgent, if maybe inconvenient & uncomfortable answers.

What are we doing, in our roles as the sporting guardians of these athletes, as they become exposed to powerful expectations at such young ages, to help support, educate & guide them through circumstances they probably never entertained facing when they first ran round the track for enjoyment at their local athletics club?  

What are we doing to protect them from the influence of those that don't understand or can't identify the personal implications that such expectations can have on an insecure & fragile mind?

Then once at the end of their careers, how are we helping these human beings, these people, come to terms with a new life?  A life where goals aren't set for them on a daily basis, where the adrenaline rush of the crowd & the race isn't a commonplace feeling, where the education & early employment experience they sacrificed to play or train full-time, dictates so much in the society they suddenly stumble out into, as they're ejected from their bubble of insular existence & cocoon of safety?

Is it any wonder so many have felt isolated & unable to cope with the new challenges that face them...ones for which they have been left so unprepared to face?

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