Watching athletes go cold turkey

If the death of a racehorse is a sad event, then the death of a racehorse on live television is an obvious starting point for national catharsis.

So it has been in the United States in the past few days after the collapse and ultimate euthanasia of the filly Eight Belles at the end of last weekend’s Kentucky Derby.

Some of the contributions to the ensuing debate have been silly—People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) wrote to Hillary Clinton castigating her for tipping Eight Belles in the pre-race market.

But, despite the fact that the reasons for the horse’s death are not yet known, most were pertinent in raising questions about the use of drugs in the sport, about trends in horse breeding that place ever greater emphasis on speed and ever less on durability and good health and about the very future of horse racing.

“Why isn’t there more pressure to put the sport of kings under the umbrella of animal cruelty?” asked the New York Times.
“Eight Belles was another victim of a brutal sport that is carried, literally, on the backs of horses. Horsemen like to talk about their thoroughbreds and how they were born to run and live to run. The reality is that they are made to run, forced to run for profits they never see.”

Something needs to be done, most agree. But here is the thing: nothing will. Because that is the way of things, not just in horse racing and not just in American horse racing, but in most sports.

Call it institutional stasis, call it an eternal human weakness, call it anything you like but just don’t trust those in charge to promote revolution, especially if—as would undoubtedly be the case in the seedy world of American horse racing—some uncomfortable truths were brought to the fore. No, for that wholesale change you need outsiders with no interest in maintaining the status quo—people such as Jeff Novitzky.

In the next few days, a court in California will begin hearing the case against athletics coach Trevor Graham, accused of lying to federal investigators over his alleged role in distributing performance-enhancing drugs to athletes, the former Olympic gold medallists Marion Jones, Justin Gatlin and Tim Montgomery among them.

Seven of Graham’s former charges, including three of the 4x400m squad that won gold for the US in the Sydney Olympics, will testify that he helped supply them with steroids and growth hormones.

The case rests largely on the evidence of Angel Heredia, a former shot-putter turned drug dealer turned government witness, who will testify that he was Graham’s conduit to the steroid world for years.

“Sensational” is an overused word when applied to legal actions, but this promises to live up to its billing, not least because it will see the airing of claims that the former 100m world-record holder, Maurice Greene, was a customer of Heredia.

Greene, who has not tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, has denied such claims. Likewise Graham has denied the charges against him, but regardless of the verdict it can safely be said that athletics has been found guilty.

After years of gossip and innuendo—and of denial both institutional and individual—the wider world now knows the truth about the sport. For this we can thank Novitzky, a former government tax investigator who instigated the Balco investigation in 2003 and persisted with it despite scepticism from his own superiors and vitriol from those he was investigating.

Novitzky, who recently changed jobs within the US government, was also pivotal in the case against baseball’s Barry Bonds, who has been indicted on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice relating to grand jury testimony in 2003, in which he said he never knowingly used illegal performance-enhancing drugs. Novitzky is also investigating the pitcher Roger Clemens over allegations that he lied to Congress saying he never used such drugs.

The outcome of these hearings is no doubt important to all of those involved but, to those who care about the integrity of America’s so-called national pastime, what matters most is that they now know that baseball, as in athletics, is riddled with drug cheats.

It is a damning indictment of those who run these sports that it took the work of one man to uncover what they chose to ignore for years. Step forward Jeff Novitzky, an American hero. One wonders what his next project will be—cleaning up American horse racing, perhaps?—Â

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