Paul Lewis on sport

Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Paul Lewis: Proof is in the shot-putting

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Valerie Adams. File photo / Brett Phibbs
Valerie Adams. File photo / Brett Phibbs

There was a funny gagging noise heard around New Zealand on Monday this week, when the news about Val Adams' gold medal came out. It was the sound of many choking on their words.

It's a funny old world. Maybe it's just a funny old country, New Zealand. Maybe it's just the worst of the internet. This marvellous communications system which has become so inextricably entwined in our lives has produced an egalitarian platform which empowers people as never before. It also gives a moron minority a voice.

The digital revolution has meant everything is instant - knowledge, communication, opinion. But that very instantaneousness can create an environment where speed overtakes credibility; the conveyance of the message more important than the meaning.

As in the Adams saga. After the initial news broke about the administrative error omitting her from the start list, the Herald on Sunday looked closer.

The motivation was an upswell of feeling among many that Adams was not losing gracefully; that mention of the admin error was an excuse; that she was beaten on the day by a better woman.

It was also because of the past work we had done with Adams, some familiarity with the shot put world and the Olympics. Something didn't seem quite right.

It wasn't hard to find out what really happened. Adams, who had been throwing further in training than Nadzeya Ostapchuk threw in her drug-tainted effort, dealt with the error and an accommodation snafu but was knocked off her stride by events in the Olympic call room when, waiting for competition, she discovered that her name was again missing.

Instead of using the time in the call room to psych out her opponents, Adams - in full view of rivals such as Ostapchuk - had to scramble desperately to get herself back on the list. It was she who was psyched out; Ostapchuk watched her arch-rival have something akin to a meltdown. Adams had two disadvantages that day - her scrambled head and Ostapchuk's doping.

There were different, reliable sources, none of whom wanted to be named for various reasons. But the reaction from some members of the public was, in some cases, bordering on the abusive.

Columnists and journalists can scarcely complain if they are severely and personally criticised, just as they criticise the celebrities and sports stars of the day, particularly in the world of the internet.

However, here are a couple of the reactions addressed to this writer after last week's Adams story, even after detailed explanation of what confronted her: "This type of scandalmongering journalism is disgraceful. He should be ashamed. Val Adams just didn't deliver on the day. The other girl threw further than Val has ever done. She won it fair and square. Kiwis take it on the chin. Get over it. We don't give a toss what you think, you are a disgrace."

"You are a t**t. Creating a story out of monkey poo. Unfortunately Valerie couldn't produce on the day for gold. Silver is still a very good achievement. End of story."

They at least have the excuse that they can't be expected to know some of the ins and outs of top-level sport and the Olympics. By their very nature, the Olympics, with their high-profile four-year cycle, attract people who do not normally follow such sports and such issues, although you'd still think they wouldn't be quite so quick on the trigger.

Less easy to overlook are sportswriters who should know a great deal better. In our dealings with various sources, the theme of drug use emerged consistently. Everyone thought Ostapchuk was a doper - but couldn't say so publicly without proof. A lawsuit is not a pretty thing. Adams' coach Jean-Pierre Egger came the closest when he answered a question on Ostapchuk by saying: "I would prefer to keep silent on this performance, if you understand me."

For that, he was pilloried in some quarters for being a bad sport and a graceless loser.

Yet the clear signs were there for anyone who followed the sport. When Ostapchuk went back to Belarus before the Olympics and started a series of enormous throws, far further than she had thrown before, the alarm bells started ringing.

To anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge, it was deeply suspicious; ripe for journalistic inquiry, not just firing rockets from the armchair, internet-style.

In this very column before the Games began, we noted that Adams, the Olympic champion, a three-time world champion, the current indoor world champion and a double Commonwealth Games gold medallist, rated nowhere in the all-time list of the world's largest shot puts by women. You'd think she'd be right up the top; top 10, maybe. Her best effort was listed at 183rd. The world record has stood since 1987 and is over a metre more than Adams has ever recorded.

The Olympic gold medals of 1980 and 1988 were won with distances past 22m. Only one athlete has bettered 21m in the Olympics since - and then only just. Of the 182 puts better than Adams' best, only three were achieved in the past 20 years. The dopers have been reined in by the detectors.

Yet some columnists said things like this: "New Zealand cries foul far too often. Sorry, Val ... No doubt we'll demand that nasty, dodgy Belarus give our medal back." Well, yeah.

Another wrote, under the heading 'Ugly NZ public shot-put reaction beyond Reason': "The Belarusian was simply too good on the day. That's the beauty of the whole thing; the glorious uncertainty of sport. You'd hope Kiwis could be big enough to accept that. Sadly, though, many prefer to indulge in cheap, nasty insults and buy into conspiracy theories. We're always robbed, we're always cheated."

Sometimes there is fire behind the smoke. Maybe Kiwis are a bit quick to harpoon the seal. Maybe we do need to learn to lose a little more gracefully.

But you can't blame the public for doing only what people who should know better are doing.

- Herald on Sunday

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