Suspicions in the Arena : Paul Kimmage interview

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Photo credit: David Conachey

Amid all the hype and good will surrounding Irish sport in the last two months, the issues of drug-testing and concussion still linger, an idea which worries Paul Kimmage. The man who helped bring down Lance Armstrong speaks to Conall Cahill about his concerns.

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Paul Kimmage wants to love rugby. He does love rugby. The raw commitment, the bravery, the intensity. But as much as he wants to believe in it all, he can’t. For Kimmage, like with cycling in the past, the silence from those within the sport when difficult questions are asked raises more suspicion than a thousand words. Kimmage thinks that rugby, and sport in general, has a sickness that needs curing before it is too late: doping. And then there is concussion.

Like with any public figure, there is a caricature of Kimmage: the angry anti-doping guy, ready to criticise and accuse at every turn. A former cyclist who rode at the Tour de France, Kimmage spent years being denounced by former team-mates, cyclists and fellow journalists for his book Rough Ride, an autobiographical account of the prevalent doping culture in cycling, and for his passionate campaigning against that culture. The silence that existed amongst cyclists about what went on in the professional peloton meant that Kimmage was viewed as a traitor. One former friend and team-mate went up to him one year at ‘Le Tour’ and spat in his face.

Vindicated somewhat by the fall of Lance Armstrong, Kimmage still believes that cycling has a doping problem. His suspicions aroused by what he calls Team Sky’s failures to “deliver on transparency”, and whisperings from young amateurs in Belgium of widespread doping practices have him convinced that there remains a dark side to the sport. The continuing public worship of Stephen Roche and Sean Kelly bemuses him. Kelly tested positive twice in his career, and Roche was accused of taking EPO by an Italian judge in a 2004 report. Their stance as figures of public worship, when compared with the disregard for Michelle de Bruin, who was accused of doping after winning three Olympic gold medals for Ireland, is baffling for Kimmage. “It’s complete bullshit…you cannot present her, view her down and hold up Kelly and Roche as heroes.”

“Someone’s going to die on the rugby field. And if that’s what it takes for it to change then it would be a sad state of affairs, wouldn’t it?”

Kimmage’s concerns about doping in sport are not limited to cycling. In soccer, he says, “it’s rife”. The presence of Dr Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt, a slightly mysterious ‘healer’ who has treated Usain Bolt and Paula Radcliffe as well as Stephen Roche recently did nothing to convince him otherwise. “Whenever I see Wilhelm, I have questions in my head.” He also highlights a detail from the book he co-penned with former Marseille and Ireland striker Tony Cascarino. Cascarino, Kimmage recalls, described players at Marseille getting “orders to go to a hotel for the injection every week. They hadn’t a fucking clue what they were getting.” The connection of Dr Eufemiano Fuentes, the ‘doping doctor’ with football teams such as Real Sociedad, and the fact that at the last World Cup “elderly players” were “running around like the Duracell Bunny” are two other factors making Kimmage shift in his seat when he is watching the game. As for athletics, Kimmage has “severe reservations” about Usain Bolt, admitting he could just be “a complete freak” but suggesting that it might take more than that for Bolt to be beating times “that have been set by what we are absolutely are totally sure of is doped runners.”

Thoughts turn to rugby, the sport that previously operated on the fringes of soccer and GAA but now holds a central focal point in the national sporting consciousness. European rugby was rocked shortly before the World Cup by allegations that Toulon, the European Champions, had been supplied with substances including anabolic steroids by a local pharmacy. The club have vigorously denied all of the accusations – but questions still remain over the credibility of rugby, a sport in which the UK Anti-Doping Agency says there is a “very high” risk of doping. Most evidence of doping appears to be among the lower levels of the game, however, with examples of elite players failing tests few and far between. South African prop Chiliboy Ralepelle is perhaps the most high profile; his ban for doping runs out in 2016.

For Kimmage, there remain questions about the highest level of the game. He wrote last year about the case of Laurent Benezech, a one-time French international who was sued by the French rugby players’ union and suffered personally for comments he made about drug use in the sport (he won the case). When asked if the response to Benezech reminded him of the treatment of Emma O’Reilly, an Irishwoman and former masseuse who gave evidence against Lance Armstrong, Kimmage says it shows an issue “in the way that we regard whistleblowers…across society. You look at the Garda case with (Maurice) McCabe…that is exactly the same as the cycling response to me, to Emma O’Reilly. And that’s the way we treat whistleblowers. And it’s totally, totally fucking wrong.”

But does Kimmage get the same vibe from those in rugby, when he asks difficult questions, as he once did when probing into cycling’s problems? “Absolutely. They need to understand that the questions aren’t unreasonable. The sport does quite clearly have a ‘pill’ culture, a substance culture. And any sport with a substance culture, when you’re talking about giving 16 year olds creatine – that is not a good starting place. And they shouldn’t be so defensive when it’s brought up, because it’s clearly a problem they need to address.”

Kimmage has come under fire in Irish rugby circles for strongly voicing his suspicions about the sport. Ireland vice-captain Jamie Heaslip last year criticised Kimmage for making “very open” accusations, and said of drug testing in rugby: “the processes that are in place work.” Irish prop Cian Healy also weighed into the debate earlier this year in response to Kimmage’s appearance on The Saturday Night Show on RTÉ, where he commented on “the doping problem in rugby”. Healy stated on Twitter that “testing is regular and worldwide” and suggested he should “call in and cancel weights on Monday”, ridiculing Kimmage’s assertions. When the duo’s criticisms are mentioned to Kimmage, he starts shaking with laughter, saying that Heaslip has ‘blocked’ him on Twitter: “Now why the fuck would Jamie Heaslip want to block me? That is such an unintelligent thing to do!”

“My suspicions are – and you only have to look at the statistics, the UK Anti-Doping statistics – that more rugby players are testing positive than any other sport. So, there’s your answer, Jamie Heaslip. There’s your answer, Cian Healy. This is a matter of fact…You can’t ignore the relationship between the size of the players now, the substances they are using, and the fact that it is…another fact that they have been using trainers and coaches and doctors that have been up to their necks in these [suspicious activities].”

But has Kimmage been watching the rugby as he still watches the Tour de France – with the constant nagging suspicion that what he is observing is too good to be true? “Look, you engage with it, you try and engage with it as much as you can. It doesn’t negate the reservations and suspicions you have over it. And it’s slightly different in that it’s a team sport, as against an individual sport where there are people who you absolutely know are not clean. And in a team sport you know there are guys who are clean. So it’s not quite the same.”

>But when the Irish team line up to belt out ‘Ireland’s Call’, do his suspicions about doping detract from the game? “Generally, yes. But again it’s not the same as an individual sport. Because I’m not sure. I’m not actually sure. While I have suspicions about two or three or four, I’m actually not sure. I’ve tried to investigate it, and had thought I was getting somewhere, and the trail went cold. I had a whistleblower who wouldn’t deliver for me and that was kind of disappointing. So I don’t know. I’m still in the ‘I don’t know’ phase.”

Fear is often put forward as a method of control Lance Armstrong used to prevent investigations or awkward questions about doping in his sport and his career. Riders who wished to speak out were silenced. Witnesses who spoke out were threatened and their names and reputations tarnished. But what about the fear of spoiling a perfect image, the fear of soiling the perfect story: a cancer survivor who won seven Tour de France titles – could this have held people back from asking questions? Does Kimmage think that a fear of spoiling the image of our clean-cut, brave sporting heroes has led to a lack of questions aimed at the Irish rugby team?

“When Michelle de Bruin won her three gold medals, there was a board meeting in RTÉ and a decision was made, and the decision was sent down to the troops, the reporters: ‘We will not upset the national mood. Everybody is delighted about this. We are not going to upset people by asking people to stand back a little bit and consider this.’”

“Every time you raise the issue of doping, or cheating, or dishonesty in sport, that’s not what people want to hear. They want to be told, ‘See that? You can believe absolutely in that. Engage with it, believe in it, it’s all true.’ They are selling us fairy tales and they want us to believe in them. And it’s getting harder and harder to believe in them.”

The topic of concussion in rugby is one that has been discussed with great fervour in this country in recent weeks, following an RTÉ documentary on the subject. Kimmage feels that the drugs question and the concussion issue are “not unrelated”, and thinks that things will not be improved if officials taking a strong position on concussion are treated like Brian O’Driscoll’s second cousin Barry O’Driscoll was.

“Barry had a very good position in World Rugby and because of the stance he took on concussion he was totally ostracised and lost all of his perks. People look at that and they say, ‘Well, it’s not going to happen to me.’” Kimmage thinks that the lack of concern most fans have for what players are putting into their bodies extends to the concussion problem, in that as long as spectators see some action they aren’t too concerned about what happens to the participants.

“People sit down to the rugby game on Sunday and they are entertained. They want to be entertained. They don’t want to think, drugs are playing any part in this. Neil Francis alluded to it on Sunday in his column – it is almost like the Roman Empire, the gladiators being brought in and fucking carried out on stretchers. ‘Bring the next fella on’. They are getting butchered. This game has a serious, serious problem.”

Kimmage admits that he would “actively discourage” any of his children who wanted to play rugby. “I mean, Jesus! It’s fucking brutal,” he says. But if, as he seems to believe, rugby is asleep to its problems, will those involved in the sport wake up soon? “They better,” says Kimmage, “because someone’s going to die on the rugby field. And if that’s what it takes for it to change then it would be a sad state of affairs, wouldn’t it?”

They are selling us fairy tales and they want us to believe in them. And it’s getting harder and harder to believe in them”

Despite all of his concerns, Kimmage admits to having huge admiration for rugby’s warriors – “the commitment is just phenomenal” – and responds, “how can you not?” when asked if he has enjoyed the World Cup. Fuelled by “passion” for sport, not anger, as is often perceived, Kimmage remains deeply in love with sport, despite the fierce war he has waged against elements of it for the last 25 years. Shortly after the Germany game Brendan Lowry, father of Shane, joined him for a drink and they shook their heads together in wonder. “Isn’t sport absolutely incredible?” said Lowry. “What would our life be without sport?”

“I was reminded of it when we came out of Lansdowne Road,” says Kimmage. “Everybody was on such a buzz. And you just think, ‘Well, it’s true.’ I mean, you know, for all its faults, sport does still give us a lot.

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