30 April 2009

Twice is no accident

One by one, the names of the 'Beijing Six' are gradually being revealed. Yesterday, we learned that Italy's Davide Rebellin and Bahrain's Rashid Ramzi had tested positive for the prohibited blood-booster Cera, based on analysis of samples from the Beijing Olympics.

And now the German Olympic Federation has reported that cyclist Stefan Schumacher is also one of the six. Schumacher won both individual time trial stages at last July's Tour de France, only for it to be revealed in October (i.e. post-Beijing) that he had tested positive for - you guessed it - Cera. He has since been given with a two-year ban from cycling's governiung body, the UCI.

It now appears that this was no one-off. Unaware that he had already given a positive sample at the Tour in July, he subsequently went to the Olympics the following month and doped again.

The likely punishment is a multi-year ban, possibly even a lifetime ban. Schumacher is only 27, and any extended sanction will deprive him of his peak racing years.


Innocent until proven guilty, sure - and Schumacher has certainly been both frequent and voluble in his protestations of innocence. But the tests have historically been pretty reliable, and to be caught twice in such a short period - particularly for a new drug which was thought by potential dopers to be undetectable at the time - suggests the odds of a mistake are negligible.

Stefan Schumacher got caught with his hand in the cookie jar, not once but twice. As a result, his career is probably over. That's the price you should expect to pay for systematically and unfairly promoting your success and livelihood at the expense of others. He deserves no sympathy whatsoever.

29 April 2009


There is an old proverb which states that 'cheats never prosper', but this is clearly not always the case in top-level sports. For every Ben Johnson or Marion Jones or Dwain Chambers, who really knows how many others slip through the net?

The anti-doping authorities do the best they can to pursue the cheats, but it has always been - and will always be - a chase in which those who choose to take the most sophisticated performance-enhancing substances will always have a head start. Billions of dollars go into the development of these drugs (many of them designed for clinical rather than athletic use) and for every new one that is launched, there is inevitably a time lag while a reliable test is devised and then agreed by the powers that be. For sure, the gap is closing and the window of opportunity for potential cheats grows ever smaller, but for those willing to take the risk there is still an advantage to be gained.

So it was with great delight that I read yesterday that the IOC had retested 948 samples from the Beijing Olympics using a newly ratified test for Cera, a modified form of the blood-booster EPO. In so doing, they unearthed six positive results, including the Italian Davide Rebellin, who 'won' silver in the cycling road race, and 1500 metres runner Rashid Ramzi, 'winner' of Bahrain's first ever track and field gold.

Better late than never.

While it is only recently (i.e. post-Beijing) that the procedure for tracing Cera has been validated for global testing, in actuality one has existed since last summer when ASO, the organisers of the Tour de France, chose to enforce the new Cera test as part of their anti-doping measures, resulting in the disqualification and subsequent banning of double stage-winner Riccardo Ricco.

It was a brave decision by ASO, who effectively decided to plough a lone furrow in advance of the rest of the sporting world, and in so doing caught out not just Ricco but several other riders who thought they were cheating with impunity by taking a supposedly undetectable drug. (It was a decision which scarred the 2008 event in the short-term, with its mass disqualifications and suspicious 'retirements', but was unequivocally the right thing to do for an event which is trying to rebuild its credibility as being 'clean'.)

While it would of course have been better if the tests had been in place for Beijing, the message this week's news sends is definitely a positive one. Use performance-enhancing substances and there is a good chance you will get caught either immediately or subsequently. Even after the medals have been handed out, this means the cheats will always have to be looking over their shoulders ... and not just at the undoped athletes behind them whose glory they are unfairly denying.

And to that I say: good.

27 April 2009

Jenson's right on the Button

Even more so than his previous two wins in Australia and Malaysia, Jenson Button's victory in yesterday's Bahrain GP underlined his world title credentials.

How so? Button's wins in the opening two races of the season were built from a position of dominance, winning at a canter having started on pole position. At the Sakhir circuit, however, that was emphatically not the case, with Button starting down in fourth. And even though Toyota's lock-out of the front row was largely the result of a three (rather than two) stop strategy which allowed them to run light fuel loads in final qualifying, Sebastian Vettel - the emphatic winner of last weekend's race in Shanghai - had qualified third, ahead of Button, and with enough fuel to run two laps further in his first stint. And behind, fifth on the grid, lurked the McLaren of reigning champion Lewis Hamilton.

In truth, the race was decided in the opening lap-and-a-bit. At the start, both Button and Vettel were swallowed up by the Kers-boosted Hamilton, but the Brawn driver responded with two sumptuous passes, dispatching first Vettel and then Hamilton with moves that were assertive rather than aggressive, clean and yet brave. Those moments alone revealed Button's title potential: he has always been a smooth, consistent driver, but here he showed commitment, control and consummate racecraft in disposing of two rivals who are known to be no shrinking violets themselves when it comes to mixing it up.

From there, the race unfolded perfectly for the championship leader. While Vettel's pace was compromised behind Hamilton's slower McLaren, Button was able to run at his own pace, stabilising the gap to the Toyotas of Timo Glock and Jarno Trulli to a few seconds, waiting patiently for both to pit, then banging in a couple of fast, low-fuel laps before coming in himself. He emerged in front of both Toyotas, and with a comfortable gap that Vettel could not bridge before his own stop.

The rest was routine. In machinery which remained reliable in the blistering heat, and with a lead which he was able to maintain at around ten seconds, Button was never likely to commit errors, and he came home comfortably ahead of Vettel.

Just four races into the season, Button has established a handsome lead of 12 points over teammate Rubens Barrichello, with Vettel a further point behind. In all probability Brawn, with their relatively limited resources, will struggle to maintain a performance advantage throughout the season - it already appears Red Bull and possibly Toyota have equal if not superior pace in certain conditions - but Jenson's showing yesterday demonstrated that, as long as Brawn can keep him there or thereabouts, he is capable of winning even if he does not have the fastest car.

And that is what world champions are made of.

Sentimental twaddle

Before I start this rant, let me get one thing straight: I have nothing against Ryan Giggs.

Yes, he's been a Manchester United player for 95 years. (He's been around so long that he's the only player to have scored in every season since the Premier League began in 1992.)

Yes, he scored that goal against my club, Arsenal, in the 1999 FA Cup semi-final, where he ran the length of the field five teams, beating 34 players and evading a flurry of surface-to-surface missiles in doing so. (But karma evened things out: he blasted over an open goal in a 2003 FA Cup tie against us at Old Trafford, an occurrence forever immortalised in the chant 'Ryan Giggs, Ryan Giggs, missed an open goal'; Arsenal went on to lift the trophy in Cardiff that season.)

And, yes, he celebrated that goal in '99 by whipping off his shirt and displaying a chest rug that Chewbacca would have been proud of, an unnecessary display of unsightly hirsuteness which gives me nightmares to this day. (Ugh.)

Nonetheless, it would be churlish of me not to acknowledge all the great things about Ryan Giggs: one of the greatest players of modern times never to have been to a major championship finals with his country (Wales); a player of lethal pace, skill and trickery who has terrorised defenders for the best part of two decades (without resorting to the kind of histrionics employed by a certain Portuguese teammate); a one-club man and a model pro. The sight of Giggs streaking down the wing at full tilt with the ball apparently glued to his feet used to terrify me; God only knows what effect he had on full backs.

With hindsight, it is amazing that Giggs had never previously been honoured by his fellow pros as the PFA Player of the Year - until last night.

And therein lies the source of my annoyance this morning: Ryan Giggs, Player of the Year?

While it's true that football is increasingly about business and less about sporting passion, there was clearly something unequivocally emotional about Giggs being given this award.

Some stats: 24 Premier League games this season, but only 12 starts; one league goal (admittedly a classic against West Ham); one Champions League goal; one Carling Cup goal. Giggs has been an invaluable asset to Man U with his skill and experience this season, but rarely has he been a match-winner.

Is that really the profile of the Premier League's best player this year?

Better than Steven Gerrard, who has 21 goals in all competitions (13 in the league)? Better than Frank Lampard - 19 goals and a model of consistent excellence - who didn't even make the shortlist? Better than Mark Schwarzer and Brad Friedel, who have been the Premier League's best goalkeepers this season?

I don't think so.

Don't get me wrong, I'm pleased that Giggs has received this long overdue recognition from his peers. But surely it would have made more sense if he had been given some kind of Lifetime Achievement award, rather than this sentimental twaddle. It makes no sense, and it undermines the validity of the PFA Awards as a whole. (And don't even get me started on the nonsense of a shortlist that included Edwin van der Sar, just because he set a new record for clean sheets by dint of playing behind the Premier League's best defence.)

Should he play some part in this week's Champions League semi-final first leg against (irony of ironies) Arsenal, it will be Ryan Giggs' 800th Man U game. That alone is testament to both his longevity and his enduring ability in what is increasingly - Giggs is 35 - a young man's game. If he does feature on Wednesday, I will applaud his 800th appearance ... and cross my fingers that I won't be seeing his 148th goal.

Well done, Ryan. You certainly deserved an award (several, really) for everything you have done in your career. Just not the one you received last night.

18 April 2009

Kings or kingmakers?

For a team who, as recently as seven weeks ago, were being widely written off by everyone - including many of their fans - Arsenal seem to be in pretty good health at the moment.

As recently as March 1st, Arsenal were five minutes away from falling eight points behind Aston Villa in the chase for a top four spot (before Stoke scored two late, late goals to snatch an unlikely draw). Today they stand eight points clear in fourth, too far back to realistically mount a late title challenge, but nonetheless beyond fans' wildest dreams those few weeks ago. An 18-match unbeaten league run is testament to how difficult to beat this young team has become since the wobbles of the autumn.

More excitingly, this evening sees Arsenal take on Chelsea at Wembley for a place in the final of the FA Cup. And, after a 4-1 aggregate win over Villarreal in which the team got better as the tie progressed, there is also a mouth-watering Champions League semi-final against Manchester United to look forward to, with the prospect of facing Chelsea or Barcelona (which would be a repeat of the 2006 final) in Rome on May 27th.

So much for this season being a disaster and a write-off.

Tantalisingly, six of our next eight games are against Man U, Chelsea and Liverpool, including Premier League games against each of them. No matter what, we (almost) certainly won't win the title, but we will have a bigger say than anyone else in determining who does. (And it's worth noting that none of the three have beaten Arsenal this season, with only Liverpool avoiding defeat.)

Kingmakers, indeed.

Beyond the Premier League title race, odds are that we may still end the season trophyless. But Arsenal are very much the masters of their own destiny in the FA Cup and Champions League, and you can't ask for more than that at this stage.

Less than two months ago, Arsene Wenger and his team were booed off the field at the Emirates Stadium after a fourth consecutive 0-0 draw in the Premier League. Some fans even called for Wenger's resignation. How silly they must feel now. Today, Arsenal fans can look forward to the next few weeks with as much excitement as any in Europe. That feels pretty good.

Maybe - just maybe - the kingmakers of the English Premier League may also become kings of Europe. Bring it on!

15 April 2009

Never forget

April 15th, 1989; twenty years ago today.

For me, it’s one of those moments in life when you can remember exactly what you were doing. I suspect it’s the same for most football fans of a certain age.

On a balmy spring day, thousands of Liverpool fans travelled to Hillsborough in Sheffield to watch an FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest. 96 did not return.

As a sports-mad teenager, I was watching Grandstand on BBC1, as was habitual on Saturday afternoons. In those days, the only FA Cup match transmitted live was the final itself, but Match of the Day cameras were present to record highlights for later transmission. But within a few minutes of the 3.00pm kickoff, reports of crowd trouble – initially assumed by many to be the result of hooligan activity – began to filter through, to be followed by news that the players had been taken off the pitch (the match was not abandoned for nearly an hour).

All the while, BBC cameras recorded harrowing images of the unfolding human disaster: Liverpool fans desperately trying to scale the fences penning them in (while thousands of others continued to push onto the overcrowded terraces, unknowingly worsening the situation); police officers actively pushing the climbers back, thinking they were preventing a pitch invasion; ambulances and fire engines with cutting equipment being turned away; the dead, dying and injured being stretchered away on advertising hoardings, to be triaged and catalogued at a nearby gymnasium.

96 dead. Fewer people than that live on my street.

Sadly, disasters at football matches were hardly unique occurrences during the Eighties. Mere weeks apart four years earlier, a total of 95 – one less than at Hillsborough – perished in a fire at Bradford’s Valley Parade and in the Heysel disaster. (Somewhat perversely, we tend to remember the latter event first, even though more fans died at Valley Parade.)

Days after the disaster, first the Sheffield Star and then the Sun ran unsubstantiated front page stories placing the blame firmly at the feet of drunken, thieving Liverpool hooligans. The Sun, laughably, ran their feature under the headline of ‘The Truth’ - they did eventually publish an unreserved front page apology … in 2004. Nine months after Hillsborough, Lord Justice Taylor’s official inquiry accurately cited a ‘failure of police control’. In 1991, an inquest jury returned a verdict of accidental death after the coroner declared that no deaths had occurred after 3.15pm and that any evidence after that time was inadmissible. No prosecutions or disciplinary actions were ever taken against the police officers in charge. All subsequent requests for judicial reviews or further public inquiries were dismissed.

It is hard to believe that even now, twenty years on, the families of the dead have never received due justice.

It disappoints me; more than that, it angers me. There is an implicit conclusion that no one was to blame, and indeed a number of the police officers present on the day have received greater compensation than the fans and their families. That’s not to say the trauma suffered by officers should not be recognised – it should – but it all rather smacks of the powers that be looking after their own at the expense of everyone else, doesn’t it?

The Taylor report brought about two changes of seismic proportion to English football - an end to heavy-handed crowd control methods and the misguided practice of fencing in fans to prevent pitch invasions, and the forced introduction of all-seater stadia at top flight clubs.

At the time, we fans objected vehemently to the changes. Even now, I miss not being able to stand on the terraces and experience the visceral feeling of belonging in a crowd; attending a Premier League game today is more akin to being part of a theatre audience.

But football is also better in so many ways. Policing methods are more sophisticated, more ‘soft-touch’. Modern stadia, for all that has been lost in terms of atmosphere, are an altogether more pleasant place to be than the dingy, dilapidated grounds of the past. Football is once again a largely safe pastime that parents can take their children to without fear of random violence. It’s of scant consolation to the people of Liverpool, but Hillsborough ultimately brought a lot of good to football’s wider community.

Is it worth trading off the raw thrill I experienced as a teen on the terraces at Highbury against the knowledge that one day (hopefully soon) I will be able to take my son to the Emirates to watch Arsenal in comfort and safety? Yes, I think it is.

Maybe the passage of time and my own ageing have softened me up a bit, but the thought of Hillsborough still touches a raw nerve. I have only been to Anfield once, five years ago, but when I did I visited the memorial to the dead outside the Shankly Gates and experienced a feeling that I have only ever felt on one other occasion: standing outside the wreckage of the World Trade Centre a year after 9/11.

I observed a personal minute's silence at Anfield that evening, as many other travelling Arsenal fans around me also did. I don’t know why, really; it just felt like the right thing to do.

Some things transcend all the usual tribal loyalties and rivalries. We may be football fans, but we are also human beings; something the police in the Hillsborough era frequently seemed to forget.

We have not forgotten the tragedy that befell Liverpool that day. Nor should we ever.