29 July 2018A decade on, Goldie Sayers prospers over cheater
Put yourself in Goldie Sayers’ shoes as she sat on that train in Taunton on Friday morning. It’s close to lunchtime, she’s got herself a cheese ploughman’s sandwich and is surfing the internet as she begins to eat. Sayers was once an elite athlete who could hurl a javelin almost as far as the best in the world. Last year she decided it was time to move on and begin her post-athletic life.
She had 34 winters on her back, seven back surgeries in eight years and, if we’re totally honest, a lingering sense of injustice that ran like a dark seam through an otherwise outstanding career. Eleven times she was British champion. How many of us get near that? It was the pursuit of
The perfect throw is like Samuel Beckett’s Godot. You wait and wait but he never comes. Sayers got close though. Ten years ago, almost to the week, she went to Beijing to compete for Great Britain at the Olympics. She was 26 and at the peak of her powers. That day in the Bird’s Nest, she nailed it. Her 65.75m was a British record and ordinarily a mark that earned a medal. Not on this day. Sayers missed out on a bronze by a fraction. She came fourth and there’s nowhere like fourth in an Olympic final.
Eamonn Coghlan was perhaps the greatest indoor miler of all time but at the 1976 and 1980 Olympics, he twice finished fourth. There was so much disappointment back in his native Ireland that it spawned the cruellest joke: “The Lord said to Coghlan, ‘Come forth’ and Eamonn sure as hell came fourth.”
Sayers’ disappointment was diluted by the promise of the London Olympics four years later. She would improve and have her day. But sport doesn’t guarantee happy endings and while Sayers did improve her own British record, London was a nightmare that she once recalled in a BBC interview. “My warm-up had seemed to go fine, and I remember my run-up was perfect. But I was putting as much effort into each throw as I could and it was landing at 48 metres.
“I can pretty much do that standing still. I couldn’t work out why this javelin was sliding out of my hand. I was baffled. I was lumping it as hard as I could, and it was going nowhere. But there was nothing attaching my forearm to my upper arm. I’d just snapped my elbow and hadn’t realised it.”
By the time Sayers called it a day, the world knew Russia had been doping its athletes for decades. You could hardly blame the Briton for taking this personally. Mariya Abakumova was second in the javelin at Beijing and as a Russian, the likelihood is she was part of the country’s state-sponsored doping programme. She denied it, but retesting of her Beijing urine sample showed the banned steroid Oral-Turinabol. Abakumova appealed her case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and for 16 months it dragged on. On Friday, as Sayers was about to tuck into her cheese ploughman’s, she stumbled across the CAS press release.
There were three bullet points halfway down the one-page statement. The second one read: “The disqualification of Mariya Abakumova [silver medalist in javelin] from the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games is confirmed.” So you’re sitting there in Goldie Sayers’s shoes, what do you do? Jump for joy or scream in anger? Do you say: you know what, you can keep that damned medal?
Sayers seemed cool in the heat of seriously delayed gratification. “When did you find out you’d won an Olympic bronze medal? Me: sitting on a stationary GWR train in Taunton eating a cheese ploughman’s,” she tweeted to her 18,000 followers. As the day progressed she felt at last the satisfaction of belatedly becoming an Olympic medalist. She promised a party after she finally gets her medal.
The question now is what to do about a medal ceremony. Where should it be? Who should attend?
By coincidence I had a letter last week from an inmate at Erlestoke prison in Wiltshire dealing with this very subject. “I have an idea,” he wrote, “on making these ceremonies meaningful and deterring future cheats.
“There is an opportunity here for restorative justice, something that those of us in prison are taught. In the event that an athlete is to be stripped of their medal, they should be required to bring said medal to the designated celebration and drape it around the neck of the rightful winner.
“This might be more of a disincentive than facing a footnote in a newspaper 10 years later and dropping the medal in the post, when the endorsement cheques have cleared, the autobiography is in the charity shop bins — while the victim, the rightful winner, is a far-off thing that you will never consider again.
“From the experience of those who have spoken about the restorative process, they have described feeling far more trepidation when facing the victim of their crime than when they faced the combined might of the police force and judicial system.”
Sayers says the worst part of the injustice wasn’t the denial of her moment on the Beijing podium, not even the loss of earnings and opportunities that followed, but not knowing how good she could have been. The proposal to fly Abakumova from Russia to place the bronze medal around her neck is an interesting one and should be pursued.
Maybe it would be good for Abakumova because as part of a corrupted sporting country, she too was a victim. One thing is sure, if she did come to Sayers’ home town of Newmarket in Suffolk she’d be pleasantly surprised by the welcome. Any town so connected to horseracing would have no difficulty understanding the temptation to get an unfair edge.
And to our reader at HMP Erlestoke, thank you.
Of all the men and women who compete in professional sport, the golf fraternity is the one least given to outrageousness or even contentiousness in their post-round interviews. So it was a joy to listen to Eddie Pepperell as he talked about the preparation for his final round at The Open last weekend.
Pepperell had just shot a 67 for comfortably the best round of the final day. “I was a little hungover,” he said by way of explanation. “I won’t lie. I had too much to drink last night. I was so frustrated yesterday that today was really, I wouldn’t say a write-off, but I didn’t feel I was in the golf tournament. Whether I shot 69 or 73 today, it wouldn’t have been heartbreaking.”
Pepperell started the final day outside the top 30. At the end he was tied for sixth, earning £250,000 in prize money. As refreshing as Pepperell’s honesty was, it was equally interesting to hear the American Xander Schauffele talk about standing by a tree in Torrey Pines at the 2008 US Open and watching Tiger Woods make the putt that got him into a playoff with Rocco Mediate. He was 16 then and dreaming of playing on the PGA Tour. Now, at 24, he had finished in a tie for second at The Open.
Asked if he watched a lot of golf, his answer was startling if not downright alarming. “I don’t like watching golf too much, [except] to learn a few things from a few guys here and there, attitude, swings and whatnot. But golf is not as exciting as other sports.” What sports are more exciting than golf, he was asked? “By ‘exciting’ I mean more contact. You know, with a shot clock coming down. Any sport really. Golf is slow. You’re not supposed to get too chaotic. When guys have outbreaks and outcries, they get fined and people make fun of them, where in other sports people thrive on that. That’s what I meant by exciting.”
When one of the better young players in the world says he’s not bothered about watching golf, it’s time to wonder what can be done to make it more exciting to watch and more fun to play. Sunday at Carnoustie seemed pretty exciting to me, and the Ryder Cup will not lack for excitement.
The game, though, is too slow. Here’s one suggestion. All golf clubs should ban fourballs. If four people insist on playing together, they should play foursomes, effectively reducing them to two balls. And players in three-balls and two-balls should be reminded that rounds must never exceed three and a half hours. Too sensible to be enforced? Of course.