Doping in bridge is a reminder that no sport will ever be free of cheating | Tim Lewis

Geir Helgemos one-year ban from bridge for doping reminds us that, from EPO in cycling to cocaine in ptanque, cheating will always go on if the rewards are big enough

Geir Helgemo is sometimes called ” the bad boy of bridge “. And, to be fair to the smiley 49 -year-old Norwegian, he does live up to his billing, seeming personally invested in bringing drama to a sport where the average age of players( at least in the US, where they have checked) is 71. Now Helgemo, the world’s top-ranked player, is involved in fresh disagreement: this past week he was found guilty of doping and been banned for a year.

The natural response to this news is:” Whaaa … medications … bridge ?” But the facts are these: Helgemo was observed with synthetic testosterone and clomifene in his system when he was playing at the World Bridge Series in Orlando in September 2018. He has admitted the violation, though otherwise has remained tight-lipped( perhaps he is waiting for the bellow from Oprah ). The suggestion is the medications were recreational , not performance-enhancing, though testosterone has been shown to improve cognitive function in some studies. Clomifene, more commonly used in fertility treatments, is known to accelerate testosterone secretion.

It is a weird instance , no doubt, but a little digging shows “its not” that unusual that either Helgemo or bridge is embroiled in something murky. Helgemo has a reputation for preternatural ability and horizontal thinking: he has won titles all over the world and in 2008 he and his partner, Tor Helness, were recruited by a Swiss-born, Monaco-based real-estate multimillionaire to play for the Monegasque national team. They earned well, lived luxuriously but forgot to pay tax back home in Norway. In 2017 this oversight caught up with them; they were penalty and sentenced to a jail term( Helgemo was given 14 months, reduced to six on appeal ).

The game of bridge, meanwhile, has a long history of foul play. There was James Bond’s high-stakes game against Hugo Drax in Ian Fleming’s 1955 novel Moonraker , in which 007 suavely outmanoeuvres the arch-villain( utilizing a deck of stacked cards) and wins PS15, 000. But the real sport is even more nefarious. There are countless examples of illegal hand signals between partners, playing footsie under the table and even the bizarre 2013 occurrence of the” coughing doctors”, a pair of German physicians who is currently judged to be communicating with each other by clear their throats. They denied the charge- it was asthma, one spluttered- but were never allowed to partner again.

One of the greatest scandals erupted in 2015 and involved Fulvio Fantoni and Claudio Nunes, two Italian players who is currently teammates of Helgemo in the all-star Monaco lineup. ( The New Yorker compared the multi-pronged affair to” the damage that Lance Armstrong did “.) Helgemo is not even the first bridge player to be busted for doping: Iceland’s Disa Eythorsdottir had to hand back the silver medal she won at the 2002 world championships in Montreal after refusing to take a drug test.

Bridge tournaments can be attritional, sometimes lasting more than two weeks. Prize money and bonuses can run to six figures. The amaze really is not that Helgemo cheated but that anyone is astounded that he did. He is not the first and will certainly not be the last.

The history of doping is almost as long as the history of sport. Early endeavours were often ham-fisted, such as the American marathon runner Thomas Hicks who was given a cocktail of brandy, egg whites and strychnine( AKA rat poison) at the 1904 Olympics. Admirably, Hicks won, though wildly hallucinating, he needed to be carried across the line.

Even in modern times the efficacy of particular drugs can be hard to verify. In January two Dutch petanque players ran public with the assertion that their Belgian rivals took cocaine mid-game to improve their performance.” They go to the toilet and do not throw a wrong ball when they come back ,” huffed Edward Vinke.” They actually feel like the monarch .”

It can be hard to get too riled by such malfeasance. It is easy to file it in the novelty, what-the-hell-were-they-thinking category of the Russian curler, Aleksandr Krushelnitckii, who had to surrender his bronze won in the mixed-doubles competition at the Winter Olympics in 2018 after testing positive for the blood flow-boosting drug meldonium. Curiously, Krushelnitckii’s teammate and spouse, Anastasia Bryzgalova, has no such traces of the banned substance.

But what these semi-comic reports truly tell is just how widespread cheating is. It goes on in every athletic. It exists wherever there is prestige and fund to be won.

One of the few people to get exercised by Helgemo’s offence was Michael Rasmussen, the Danish cyclist. He knows a thing or seven about doping: from 1998 to 2010, he employed EPO, growth hormone, testosterone, cortisone, insulin, DHEA and had blood transfusions. On Twitter Rasmussen wrote:” 1( one) year prohibition for testing positive for clomifene and testosterone is not really in sync with other forbids for similar doping offenses. By the route he is Norwegian and they don’t defraud. At the most they are asthmatic … #6000doses #PyeonChang .”

There might be a Denmark-Norway dig going over my head here but the hashtags refer to the story that the Norwegian Olympic delegation took more than 6,000 doses of asthma medication for their 109 athletes competing at the 2018 Games in South Korea.

Meanwhile more incontrovertible doping stories continue to attain headlines. This past week in Austria five skiers were arrested at the Nordic skiing world championships: two each from the host nation and Estonia, one from Kazakhstan. One Austrian, Max Hauke, who awkwardly happens to be a police cadet, was caught in the raid mid-transfusion, a needle in his arm.

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On the Science( ish) podcast the University of Essex’s Professor Chris Cooper, writer of Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat , was asked if doping would ever be eliminated from sport. He was certain it would not. Trying to stop it is like trying to banish crime from society.” If there’s a big enough reward ,” he said,” some people will always try to cheat .”

And if we need proof of that statement, we need only look at the recent history not only of athletics and cycling but also of bridge and petanque. Perhaps, with the national singles title coming up for assertion in April, all eyes should be on tiddlywinks.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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