In the annals of journalistic smoke-and-mirror exclusives, the recent doping story in The Sunday Times must rank highly in being one of the biggest non-stories of all time.
Harley Street physician Dr. Mark Bonar, who, according to the General Medical Council (GMC) is not licensed to practise medicine in this country, is alleged to have set up a clinic where he supposedly - according to the Sunday Times - prescribed steroids, erythropoietin (EPO), human growth hormone and other performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) to over 150 sportspeople, including professional footballers at Arsenal, Chelsea, Leicester City and Birmingham, tennis players, British Tour de France cyclists, an England cricketer and a British boxing champion.
As expected, the named football clubs came out strongly and condemned the doctor's claims, but tellingly they also aimed their turrets at the paper, expressing disappointment with The Sunday Times for publishing accusations that were not only 'without foundation' but also 'unsubstantiated.' And there's the rub.
You see, there's something quite disconcerting about the latest 'revelations' by The Sunday Times, timed, as per usual, to do the most damage to British sport in an Olympic year.
If I had a pound for every time The Sunday Times has heralded another drugs exclusive, I'd be about five grand better off. Ever since they successfully helped nail disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong after relentlessly chasing him for years, the paper has been basking in the warm afterglow of being one of those who helped to bring him down, but it now sees itself as the moral authority of drugs exclusives and is constantly in a rush to get out another drugs story. However, in their haste to do so in this case, half the facts didn't make it to print. Important facts as well. Such as names.
A few months ago, the paper led the charge against British marathon runner Paula Radcliffe, claiming they had evidence of seriously erroneous blood data readings which, they insinuated, meant something was afoot. They teased the readers as to her identity and all but printed her name. This major exposé that named 300 other athletes, was subsequently previewed by the BBC, Sky News, online sites and presented before a Commons Select Committee, where Radcliffe, a former teammate of mine no less, was publicly dragged over coals. All of this presumably led to an increase in sales of the paper and their online subscriptions. They huffed and they puffed, but in the end she was exonerated and their major feature suddenly had the look and feel of a damp squib.
This latest so-called exposé goes even further in casting aspersions.
According to several sports journalists I have spoken to, The Sunday Times spent an entire six months on this case using a runner who we were led to believe is supposedly an elite level Olympic hopeful but is actually an amateur cyclist. And in all that time they came up with the sum total of zero names. Not one. In six months.
Also, Dr. Bonar did prescribe drugs to footballers, but they were footballers who have never been anywhere near the Premier league, which is why the name of Birmingham City FC, totally at odds with the other three teams, was added to the mix. It was also the reason that he tweeted the following, "The Sunday Times allegations are false and very misleading. I never had a relationship with any premier football club or player."
My contacts also told that the level of sports people Dr. Bonar worked with were amateurs and not professional or elite level at all, which is not the way the headlines come across.
In stating that some of those on the list were from British tennis, cycling, cricket and 'a British boxing champion', the inference to the reputation of these sports - particularly when Leicester are seemingly about to do the impossible and win the Premier League; British boxing is in a purple patch with more world champions than any other country; a British cyclist is the reigning Tour de France champion; British tennis holds the Davis Cup for the first time in almost 80 years and English cricket is also on the up- is pretty clear. The Sunday Times Insight team set out to do a hatchet job on British sport, and to hell with the hard facts. By not actually coming out and naming names, which is the basis of investigative journalism, surely, the net of suspicion has been cast upon every single competitor in these sports and football teams.
I'm in the unique position of not only haven written in the past for The Times and Sunday Times, I've also failed a drugs test. In 1994, I took a herbal supplement that contained the then-banned substance ephedrine, which was listed by its herbal name on the bottle. Being a biotechnology graduate, I argued that the herbal term was not a scientific one and I had no idea it was banned. That didn't cut any mustard, and I was pulled out of the athlete's village at that year's European championships and banned from the following month's Commonwealth Games as I received a three-month ban. Today, athletes only get a public warning if they fail a test for ephedrine.
But what sets this particular story article aside, apart from the fact that they had an athlete wired for sound who caught everything on tape- but not a single name- is that UK anti-doping (UKad) was aware of Dr. Bonar TWO YEARS AGO. They launched an investigation into him and his claims and deemed that he was a Walter Mitty character who had greatly exaggerated his worth to the dark arts of sports doping.
I can just imagine UKad personnel rolling their eyes, tutting and sighing loudly as they concluded Dr. Bonar wasn't the sort of person they are supposed to take seriously. UKad are like sharks on legs when they smell blood, and the fact that they ultimately recommended Bonar be referred to the GMC by the whistle-blower himself, as he was outside their jurisdiction, suggests that they felt they were wasting their time with him. Otherwise, and as someone who has been on the wrong side of UKad can tell you, they would have gone for Dr. Bonar in a major way.
The most damning thing in all of this is the statement given by the paper itself, saying that it 'had no independent evidence that Bonar treated the footballers or the other sportspeople, and that there was no suggestion the substances he prescribed were illegal but are banned by sporting bodies.'
What? Either this is a story or it's not a story. But how can it be right that The Sunday Times can get away with tarring entire sports with the 'doping brush', even though they had 'no independent evidence' and no names after an entire six months of digging, yet ran the story anyway just to sell papers and create hourly headlines on news channels and generate traffic to their paywall?
How can it be right that football teams and some of our best current sportsmen and women will now have us doubting their achievements because, in not coming out and naming anyone, they are in the crosshairs of suspicion? Which boxer do we think it is? Or tennis player? Footballer? We've got so many people to choose from that this is one of those occasions where everyone is presumed guilty until they can prove their innocence. Don't let the fact that the people seen by the good doctor were all county or club level competitors. Why should the paper let hard facts like that get in the way of sensationalism?
The investigative journalists might pat each other on the back, share high fives, line dance or whatever is they do when they celebrate this half story, but the one question the readers should be asking is, 'Where are the names?' Without them, this is just a pointless exercise in fiction, with mildly interesting allegations.
It's now time to either put up or shut up.