The needle and the damage done

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She stood across the high table from me, fidgeting in that imperceptible way that people do when trying their best to appear relaxed.

I was interviewing her because her story was the opposite of most sportspeople.

Though talented, she had never stood out for most of her career.

She was a late bloomer, and than in itself is enough to ring alarm bells. The difference was that when she bloomed – boy, did she bloom.

She went from being among the has-beens and the also-rans to being one of the stars of her sport.

There was no discernible difference in technical ability, just an explosive power and endurance added to what she said “God gave her.”

God appeared to have decided to top it up at some time in her late twenties too – and then some.

I asked the question everybody wanted the answer to – why her? Why now?

She looked at me and started to answer, looking down at the floor momentarily in the middle of it before remembering her well-rehearsed lines.

It was her diet, you see – that, and the new weights program with her new personal trainer.

You see, she hadn’t been taking care of herself properly before, and now she was doing things properly – that was the explanation.

She looked at me as if I was a teacher who’d asked her a history question, a “was that

I didn’t let it go.

“But given all that’s happened across the board in sports – surely people aren’t going to believe you?”

This time, her gaze didn’t waver.

“People can believe what they want to believe –I can’t do to change that. All I know is that I am not a cheat. I know I’m clean.”

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Afterwards, I took some pictures to go with the interview. She relaxed and a beautiful smile lit up her face.

Afterwards, we looked at them in the camera together, and she asked me to send them on to her.

She reminded me of many young women – critical of her own appearance, delighted when she found a picture that made her look beautiful.

She asked me to send it to her; I did, and she thanked me for it.

A while later, closer to a major event she was to take part in, I mailed her again. She never mailed back.

A little less than two years later, she was at the pinnacle of her sport, winning the one they all set out to win.

As she collected her prize, her face beaming, I looked at the picture I’d taken on the day I’d done the interview.

Her face wasn’t the same.

The warm natural beauty was gone, replaced by a frozen mask, all teeth and tense eyes, as if waiting for someone to point a finger at her and say: “This is not yours to keep. You don’t deserve this.”

I didn’t believe her story then, and I don’t believe her now.

I believe that, rather than diet and weights, she was taking performance-enhancing drugs.

And I don’t necessarily believe that she’ll ever get caught.

But I do believe that an awful lot of sportspeople – in track, in ball sports, in cycling, in swimming, in skiing – are still telling us the same lies that she told me.

And that tells me that as long as they are prepared to take the risks and tell the lies, we’re obviously not doing enough.

We need to take the rules we have, and put them on steroids.

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