Brookes, Ghent 2015, Modafinil, and being the troll.

In response to the visit of IOC President Thomas Bach to the Plodiv World Chamionship Regatta last weekend, The Rowing Voice posted this rather insightful summation of his warning for the future of lwt rowing and sculling at the Olympics. The article also included the very clear idea that FISA has no real authority to run the Olympic rowing events and what the IOC wants, the IOC will get. This caused a little be bit of stir on Twitter, into which I threw in my two blogs posts worth. First “No Future?” outlined the clear existential threat to rowing as an Olympic sport. And next, the “Death of the Peperami Men”  outlined why I have little sympathy with the plight of lwt rowing in general. In DOPM I seriously outlined my concerns that PED use was a more likely event in lwt rowing than the rest of the sport (more power and less weight is a difficult combination to achieve without help) and wrote a rather unfunny joke about Oxford Brookes boat club.

Which led to this entirely fair response from The Rowing Voice –


RV’s point here really gets to the nub of why I started this blog in the first place.

But first a little background – On the weekend of May 9th and 10th, Oxford Brookes Boat club sent their ever impressive squad over to Belgium. I believe that they raced three eights (it is a little difficult to get the precise start list in a hurry) of which one won the Open contest on the 9th May. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the prestige of this even, some or all members of the Brookes squad were asked to give a urine sample for anti-doping analysis. Two crew members, Sybren Hoogland, and Timothy Grant, returned Adverse Analytical Findings (aafs) for a metabolite of Cocaine, benzoylecgonine, and Modafinil, respectively. The matter was handed over to UK Anti Doping who on the 22nd/23rd of November 2015, passed two year bans on both young men.

The official responses from British Rowing and from UKAD were, as to be expected, boilerplate platitudes of “disappointment”, “wrong choices”, and more “disappointment”, from Andy Parkinson of BR and Nicole Sapstead of UKAD respectively. Notably Andy Parkinson left the door open to the return of those two rowers to front line competition by stating…

“While we accept that both rowers did not take performance enhancing substances, this is a wake-up call for all aspiring rowers in the UK.”

Rowing Twitter was equally shocked, ashamed, angry, and disappointed. There was talk of bad apples in the bunch, a certain satisfaction that those who could not or would not obey the rules had fallen foul of the system. Then… crickets. No questions were asked, no accusation were leveled, virtually no bitchy snark was distributed, not one person, anywhere that I can find, thought to ask in print “well, that would explain a lot wouldn’t it?” or “no wonder Brookes goes so bloody fast eh?”.

At this point the idea for the blog and the character of Anno Dryseagaker was born. Clearly someone needed to be the bad fairy, someone needed to say the things that were otherwise not being said. That was to be Anno’s job, to be rude, unpleasant, contraria, controversial, and maybe on occasion, even funny. Anno was going to ask the following questions –

  1. Why would an otherwise knowledgeable sports administrator describe Modafinil as “not [being] a performance enhancing drug”, when it was part of the prescribed cocktail of drugs given to Victor Conte’s BALCO clients with ubiquitous regularity? Please also read this Telegraph article to the end for a Conte’s unparalleled insight into what his athletes used, how his athletes cheated, and how they avoided testing protocols.)
  2. Given that both Oxford and Cambridge appear to have a significant problem with Modafinil being illegally taken by students to aid their studies, was it really likely that just one student rower from either one of those two cities was the only athlete racing with that chemical in their system?
  3. Is it really likely that none of the “tiny proportion of bad apples” among the student rowers of Oxbridge who took Modafinil for their studies failed to realize that it made them more alert, less tired and more able to tolerate mind numbing repetitive tasks such as churning out that third 30 min UT2 @ 20spm of the day? This description of using Modafinil for the first time adequately paints a picture of the enormous value that the drug could have for the time pressed, socially distracted and sleep deprived student rower.
  4. Is it ever really just a “tiny proportion of bad apples?”*
  5. Is it ever really “the first time I ever did anything like this?”*
  6. (and most of all) Why the hell is it just me asking these questions?

So, yes I snarked in a bitchy and juvenile manner at Oxford Brookes University Boat Club, when I should have done what I am doing now and clearly laid out my belief…

  1.  That Timothy Grant returned an AAF for the presence of a performance enhancing substance, and that should stand as a matter of record.
  2. That students, which probably includes rowers, in Oxford, take Modafinil frequently.
  3. That it was a wrong and alarmingly poorly advised statement by Andy Parkinson (to the point of dishonesty or ignorance) to describe Modafinil as not being performance enhancing.
  4. That the spirit of this statement should not have been echoed by other authoritative voices in the rowing community
  5. That the subsequent lack of skeptical analysis of the issues surrounding the 2015 AAF’s both in public forums and (publically) at the highest levels of the sport feels a lot like following cycling in 1995.

So what should have been done?

Brookes should have had the decency to withdraw from competition for the rest of the year.*

Brookes could have made some public statements of contrition

The Brooke’s BC to GBR pipeline needed to be suspended until such as time as the integrity of Brookes BC could be brought back to a decent level.*

Brookes BC should have immediately and anonymously tested their entire squad to see how far the problem went, and offered amnesties to student rowers who came forward to report their own use of Modafinil or other PED’s, and support those who planned to engage in abstinence going forward, with better time management for their studies and their training.*

Failing this, British Rowing, Leander Club, and UKAD should have marched down to the Reading Road boat house with a lot of little cups designed to hold human urine and told anyone who was not prepared to fill them that they would not be welcome to row in GB colors or Leander Pink.*

Oxford Brookes University should have started asking questions about the Boat Club that carries its name and just how much it was asking of those who raced and trained under its colors.

Maybe all of this and more happened, but certainly none of it was ever publicized. That however would strikes me as something to be as worried about as the possible contamination of the soil at the prime breeding ground for British Rowing Olympians.

Do I think that British University Rowing and specifically Brookes BC has a problem with Modafinil or other performance enhancing drugs? Probably not, and it is a lot less likely now than it was on May 8th 2015.

Do I think that a boat club that produced the first two AAF’s in the history of rowing in Great Britain and has subsequently done nothing, publicly, to prevent a repetition of this issue should be able to put out promo videos of their awesome 8’s as though nothing ever happened without a bit of Twitter snark? Hell no I do not, specially when the lack of any public statement by Oxford Brookes University or OBUBC on this matter was a shocking failure of character and should lead to nothing but skepticism and cynicism.

Do I think that there remains a need for someone in UK rowing to “be the troll” and point out that the history of sport is littered with tarnished icons who left the broken dreams of honest athletes in their wake and that a skeptical approach to indomitable greatness is a wise approach?

Yes, absolutely.

*at this point most people will be saying that it’s wrong to punish the whole for the sins of the few, but that’s what they said about cycling teams in 1995.

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