Podcast: The Detail

Shooting the messenger over drug cheats

The Detail today talks to long-time sports journalist Phil Gifford about what happens to journalists who accuse sporting heroes of being drug cheats

Allegations of drug-taking by the World Cup-winning South African rugby side should not be ignored, according to one veteran sports commentator.

Newstalk ZB’s Phil Gifford says exposing drug cheats or implying a sportsperson or team could be getting pharmaceutical help, can have devastating effects on the career of a journalist, so a decision to go public is never taken lightly. "Sadly in many cases the allegations prove to be true ... but sometimes it can take years before they're confirmed."

Days after the triumphant Springbok team returned home, Irish journalist and former World Cup forward Neil Frances suggested some of the players may not have been clean. He was slated by the local media and South African fans. But Phil Gifford says the journalist had done his homework

Frances had given details of how sophisticated the cocktail of drugs used by banned Springbok winger Aphiwe Dyantyi were, and said it was hard to believe he hadn't received medical help. He also referred to a survey of schoolboy rugby in the Natal region which revealed a high level of steroid use. But it didn't lessen the backlash from South African fans.

"There is never a right time to bring up the subject of drug-taking, but sometimes when a story that warms us all is challenged, it can feel like someone is killing Bambi," explains Gifford.

So what about in New Zealand? How prevalent is drug use in New Zealand Sport?

Gifford says our drug agency is spotlessly clean as far as integrity goes and the testing regimes are thorough. He says there’s too much at stake for our athletes when it comes to getting caught, and they know they will be randomly tested.

“I believe the vast majority of our athletes are drug-free,” Gifford says.

A quick look on the Drugfree Sport NZ website and you can see a list of athletes who've been caught using banned substances, but Gifford says they were probably never going to amount to anything anyway.

“Steroids are the sort of things now that are used by people who don’t expect to be tested.”

Gifford admits he knew of at least one drug cheating athlete - now deceased discus thrower Robin Tait - because Tait told him about it.

The price of exposing him at the time was too great.

“If he’d chosen to sue me - I didn’t have any proof. I only had a conversation with him in which he told me himself he’d taken it ... it would have come down to the credibility of me versus a gold medal winning athlete in court. And if Robin had chosen to lie in court - if it had come to that, which it never ever did because none of us ever ran a story while he was alive - then who knows what the consequences would have been as far as libel goes.

“Why would you believe some scummy little journalist when the person who’s saying ‘the journalist who’s lying’ is a Tour de France winner, or a gold medal-winner for New Zealand at one of our greatest Commonwealth Games?”

Tait won the gold medal at the 1974 games in Christchurch.

“One of the things about drug use that is sad ... and the reason why athletes will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to beat the drug test ... is simply the money,” says Gifford. “There is so much money involved in it now that it is simply absolutely worthwhile.

“And the worst thing of the lot is, drugs do help performance.”

Want more from The Detail? Find past episodes here.

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