I took EPO to have an equal chance, says athlete

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The Independent Online

It is not quite a first for track and field, but in telling the world yesterday, "Hands up, I did it," Cathal Lombard, the Irish distance runner whose positive test for the blood-boosting substance erythropoietin came to light last weekend, made a clean break of sorts for his sport in the drug-shrouded run-up to the Athens Olympics.

Lombard had been given until yesterday to explain why he had registered positive for EPO in a test conducted in St Moritz on 11 July and, instead of mounting a defence, the former solicitor opened his heart and confessed he had taken the drug to "have an equal chance with everyone else".

In the past 18 months, the 28-year-old runner from Cork has improved his 10,000 metres personal best by three minutes and two seconds, clocking an Irish record of 27min 33.53sec in Stanford, California, earlier this year, and qualifying for the Olympics at both 5,000m and 10,000m. Having confessed his guilt in an interview with his local newspaper, he will forfeit his place on the Irish team and serve a two-year suspension.

"I didn't set out to try to win medals or to make money," Lombard told the Irish Examiner. "I just wanted to be as competitive as I could and have an equal chance with everyone else. I am not trying to justify what I did in any way. I am just saying this was the case; this is what I did; and, hands up, I did it. I know: nobody has ever admitted they're guilty. Nobody is ever guilty."

That is not strictly true. In athletics in the early 1990s the British shot putter Neal Brunning confessed his guilt after testing positive for steroids. And last month the British cyclist David Millar admitted to French police that he had used EPO and then spoke publicly about the pressure to keep up with the best in the sport that had driven him to cheat - the same motive that Lombard cited yesterday.

Speaking from northern Italy, where he had been training for the Olympics, Lombard added: "I don't want doping in sport, but it has certainly reached epidemic proportions. My eyes were really opened from conversations I had with people on the professional scene.

"I looked at some of the times being consistently run and I asked myself if this was possible naturally. The only logical conclusion I could reach was that, in a lot of cases, the answer was definitely 'no'.

"I realise now that most of the people I'm speaking about on the professional scene are operating on a very sophisticated basis, with proper medical back-up and advice on how not to get caught. In comparison I was merely dabbling and made no attempt to cover it up.

"It is happening across all professional sports in the world, I think. But I acted independently. There was nobody else involved and that's what caught me out at the end of the day. It was my sixth out-of-competition test this year. I had five others in 2002 and all were clear.

"Looking back, it was naïve on my part to do what I did, but it just happened. Of course I feel remorse. I am in a bad situation now and I regret doing it. But I can't change things now. I have to accept it and get on with things."

Which was what the American sprinter Dennis Mitchell was ultimately obliged to do when he fell foul of the drug testers - after claiming that four cans of beer and five acts of copulation with his wife the night before his test ("It was the lady's birthday - she deserved a treat") had been responsible for the excessive level of testosterone found in his urine sample.

Then there was the Spanish discus thrower David Martinez, who blamed his positive test for nandrolone on having eaten infected pork. In an attempt to prove his innocence, he kept a pig in his garden for four months and injected it with the steroid. Sadly for him and for his temporary pet, no traces of the drug were found in his system when he slaughtered the pig and ate it.

The Spanish federation was convinced he had been telling porkies all along.