Stuart O’Grady: Once is enough

John Thompson-Mills Columnist

By John Thompson-Mills, John Thompson-Mills is a Roar Expert

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    Stuart O'Grady admitted to using PEDs in 1998. (AAP Image/Tom Miletic)

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    In July last year, Stuart O’Grady retired from cycling. He retired suddenly, just as the 100th edition of the Tour de France finished in Paris.

    O’Grady retired because he was certain his name was about to appear in a French Government Senate report conducted into the 1998 Tour de France, which, of course, was dominated by the Festina affair.

    The 17-time veteran of the world’s most famous bike race was convinced his name would appear on a list of riders who had tested positive for EPO during the race.

    As a yellow jersey wearer and stage winner at the race, O’Grady had had several post-stage doping controls and, given he’d taken EPO in the lead-up to the race, was sure his name would emerge.

    As it happened it didn’t, O’Grady’s name only appeared on a list of those whose tests were ‘suspicious’.

    But O’Grady says the fear of anticipating the report’s release and the obvious fallout that would follow was enough to convince him his time as a rider was up.

    Furthermore, it was time to come clean about the dirty secret he had kept for 15 years.

    So O’Grady confessed to doping before the 1998 Tour de France, but in his words, he “only did it once”.

    As I wrote back in late July when this story broke, O’Grady was my first cycling hero. I’d met him soon after his first Tour de France in 1997, and after only seeing the race on TV, this “flesh and blood connection” was all I needed to be totally hooked.

    I followed his career closely ever since that day.

    But the “only did it once” comment never sat easily with me.

    I wanted to believe him, but in my opinion, even when we know we’re about to do something wrong, if we get away with it, the temptation to try it again is often too great to resist. After all, we’re only human.

    So I found it hard to believe O’Grady only doped once. Well that was until I read his book, Battle Scars, which has just been released.

    That said, what O’Grady says qualifies as “doping once” and what I consider, as “doping once” are different.

    In my world, it means, you dope on one occasion. Once. Just a single pinprick and then that’s it. Nothing more, nothing less.

    What O’Grady explains in Battle Scars as doping once, is doing it in preparation for one race, which in this case was the 1998 Tour de France.

    As he reveals though, it wasn’t just one injection. It was something he did every second day over a 10-12 day period, all from a single vial he says he bought from a pharmacy in Spain. O’Grady says he was too scared to inject every day just in case he took too much.

    O’Grady writes he then took the remaining EPO with him to the Tour – which in 1998 started in Dublin – but when he saw police stopping team cars on the Belgian border and finding EPO, he was too scared to use the rest.

    Then incredibly, on the very day he realised a lifelong dream and claimed the mythical Maillot Jaune, O’Grady went to back to his hotel room to watch Festina officials being arrested on TV.

    O’Grady says it was that moment that convinced him of what doping could cost him. So he waited until his teammate was out of the room, smashed the vial, and flushed the EPO away.

    It’s easy to be cynical about cycling stories, but reading this chapter has changed my mind about what O’Grady has admitted to.

    So despite him riding right through one of the sport’s dirtiest eras, I believe the Festina affair was enough to convince O’Grady to stop doping there and then.

    Stuart O’Grady refers to this time as a “tiny moment in my career”, and a few days out of 20 years is a tiny moment, but the fallout had a profound effect on his life, not to mention his family, friends and the sport of cycling.

    From reading Battle Scars, I can understand why he decided to take EPO. The physical pain of his debut Tour de France and the fear of struggling to cope in ’98 were strong. The intrigue as to what the fuss about EPO was all about. And, perhaps crucially, the lack of someone to debate the pros and cons of EPO with.

    He says of that time in late June 1998, he had no coach and no housemate to discuss it with. He just knew from what he’d heard in the peloton you could get EPO in Spain, so that’s where he went.

    Eventually he says he summoned up the courage to go in and buy some. And then after more agonising about the morals of what he was considering, he did it.

    But from then on, it was a secret until O’Grady confessed to his Orica-GreenEDGE boss Shayne Bannan during last year’s Tour de France.

    A few days later he told his family and then the rest of the world.

    Reading this, and also hopefully the book, you’ll have your ideas about what to believe.

    Maybe it’s because I want to believe O’Grady that I’m prepared to publicly retract what I originally said, but I genuinely believe the events of the 1998 Tour de France were so profound that their coinciding with O’Grady realising a life-long ambition created a perfect storm.

    Yes, my definition of “once” and his are different, but Battle Scars has put those doubts to rest.

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    The Crowd Says (22)

    • Roar Guru

      February 27th 2014 @ 10:12am
      delbeato said | February 27th 2014 @ 10:12am | ! Report

      having read a few books by ex-dopers, Stu’s story doesn’t add up. there are a range of reasons why doubt creeps in about his ‘once only’ explanation. one is that i learned that just taking EPO doesn’t work that well on its own. you apparently need to manage it, such as by taking iron supplements and of course – getting the dosage right. this usually involves medical supervision of some kind.

      it’s hard to believe Stuey was that naive that he didn’t know any of that and just walked into a pharmacy to buy it. i think that’s designed to protect himself and the range of others who i suspect were part of the program that oversaw his EPO use.

      • February 27th 2014 @ 1:05pm
        Aljay said | February 27th 2014 @ 1:05pm | ! Report

        Ok so I’m not that aware of what EPO is/does but is it really an over-the-counter medicine that you can just buy from your local pharmacy? In what form? What is it actually sold or meant to be used for?

        There does seem to be the possibility that he may be covering for others. If Festina had such a team-based institutionalised doping program, is it possible that O’Grady’s team did?

        • Roar Guru

          February 27th 2014 @ 1:55pm
          delbeato said | February 27th 2014 @ 1:55pm | ! Report

          yes, you could buy it in Switzerland – at least at that time – over the counter. it is used for treating kidney malfunction or something, i can’t remember precisely.

          the thing is – from what i understand, it’s not like Popeye’s spinach which you inject it and suddenly you become superhuman. you need to be more sophisticated than that. this is the reason Lance spent $millions on Dr Ferrari – to manage his doping treatment.

          and yes, it’s very possible O’Grady’s team was involved in doping. the majority of teams and riders were during those years. when you here a story “i never saw anything” or “i did it just once” – your BS meter should be going off the scale.

    • February 27th 2014 @ 1:11pm
      Griffo said | February 27th 2014 @ 1:11pm | ! Report

      Whether his story is true or not his career is still tainted. For someone who was considered such a battler, embodying the Aussie spirit, for someone who managed to wear the Maillot Jaune, come runner up for the Green Jersey, win Olympic Gold and the Paris-Roubaix to then find out that he took drugs diminishes everything he achieved whether he achieved those cleanly or not. It was just so disappointing to find that out after all the years of supporting him.

    • February 27th 2014 @ 1:17pm
      fadida said | February 27th 2014 @ 1:17pm | ! Report

      Sadly sport is littered with dopers who have confessed to doping “just once”. It has of course turned out that the doping was not “just once”.

      Unfortunately O’Grady’s entire career must now be considered “dirty”.

    • Columnist

      February 27th 2014 @ 4:51pm
      Tim Renowden said | February 27th 2014 @ 4:51pm | ! Report

      If he was lying before, can we believe he’s telling the truth now?

      Some people will, some won’t. I don’t really believe he’s telling the whole truth, but he may not be telling lies about stopping using EPO. We have no way of knowing.

      I don’t think I’ll buy his book.

      • Roar Guru

        February 27th 2014 @ 5:07pm
        delbeato said | February 27th 2014 @ 5:07pm | ! Report

        that’s a good summary

        • February 27th 2014 @ 5:30pm
          fadida said | February 27th 2014 @ 5:30pm | ! Report

          Yep. Anyone whose read anything about cycling in this period (any period?) has the right to be very sceptical. O’Grady was a successful rider in a time where to be successful you had to dope.

          Sadly cycling is the world’s most tainted sport

          • Roar Guru

            February 28th 2014 @ 11:37am
            delbeato said | February 28th 2014 @ 11:37am | ! Report

            i wouldn’t say that it was the most tainted. there’s little reason to believe other endurance and power-based sports, such as swimming or running, are cleaner.

            • February 28th 2014 @ 3:50pm
              simmo green said | February 28th 2014 @ 3:50pm | ! Report

              You only need to come to discussions like this to realise how blindingly naive and righteous Australians can sometimes be. You need to examine the history of the sport, the unreasonable expectations of race organisers and the riders need to recovery quickly throughout a season that now lasts from January to November. Ottavio Bottechia said it, Anquetil said it as did Hinault, not that they needed to. You still don’t get the difference between ‘performance enhancement’ and professional survival.

    • February 27th 2014 @ 7:31pm
      anfalicious said | February 27th 2014 @ 7:31pm | ! Report

      Personally I don’t take people who say “I’m coming clean because I’m about to get caught but I swear the one time I was going to get caught for was the only time” all that seriously. But then I don’t think there’s been a clean cyclist up the front of the tour, well, ever.

    • February 27th 2014 @ 10:27pm
      Silver_Sovereign said | February 27th 2014 @ 10:27pm | ! Report

      fool me once…..shame on you….

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