Paul Lewis on sport

Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Paul Lewis: Celebrating golden times

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Mark Todd partied with his team-mates. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Mark Todd partied with his team-mates. Photo / Mark Mitchell

It was a barely believable 28 years ago. A languid Mark Todd - he rarely seems any other way - had just swung off Charisma's back a few days ahead of his gold medal at the Los Angeles Olympics.

Smog was the topic du jour. LA's air pollution was so much of a problem that Prince Philip had called for the equestrian events to be held at San Diego rather than at LA's smoggy Santa Anita racecourse.

Some were worried about the heat made worse by the smog - horses had died at a nearby world championships a few years earlier. Indeed, when we got there to see Todd, the smog was so thick that the mountains which frame the track were almost invisible.

Todd didn't care. In fact, he added to it. One of his first acts upon leaving Charisma's saddle was to light up a cigarette. Then another. He wasn't chain smoking exactly but he wasn't abstaining either.

This is a very different kind of sportsman in a highly different sport. It was delightful to hear about the equestrians' post-medal party in London this week, with Todd hanging out of a pub window, attractive women everywhere, the riders enjoying themselves hanging their medals round the necks of surprised Poms in the pub.

In Olympic history, rowers' break-outs are legendary. Subjected to a long, strict physical regime, the rowers can be a bit, well, enthusiastic when they swap the monastic for the celebratory.

At one Olympics long ago, an official who went to complain about the noise level at the rowers' break-out was held out of a second storey window and threatened with freefall unless he promised to go away. He did.

The canoeists - Ian Ferguson and Paul MacDonald (plus Alan Thompson and Grant Bramwell) - also hosted good celebrations. After one of their Olympic triumphs of the '80s, they threw their lodgings open (they stayed in a country house near the lake at which they competed). There was a barbecue, drinks, a swimming pool... enough said.

Todd has joined Ferguson and MacDonald as our most prolific Olympians, with five medals (although Ferguson still tops the list with his four gold and one silver, compared to MacDonald's three golds, silver and bronze and Todd's two gold and three bronze).

But this is about more than hardware. That day in Los Angeles in 1984, the interview with Todd took a long time. Not because he talked a lot, although he was as lucid and insightful as ever. It was because he was constantly interrupted.

Beautiful women in jodhpurs, that fascinating item of female apparel, kept appearing. Hug, hug, kiss, kiss ... Male riders and horse handlers also stopped by and said hello. Todd was a clearly a magnet in a sport which, it was apparent, has a well-developed social element.

The riders are all rivals but they are thrown together so often that friendships are formed. In these days of rigid professionalism, where athletes often don't mix after events and where alcohol has become a dirty word, it is refreshing to see the horse people giving themselves free rein.

"I'm off to the pub," Todd told one interviewer in London. And he was. He may not smoke any more but he is still not beyond tucking a pint or three into that lean frame.

That's why it is not beyond the pale that Todd could be there at Rio de Janeiro at the 2016 Olympics - riding again and probably winning a medal. He'd be 60 but, hell, someone once said he could win Badminton riding a donkey. He could ride a broom and make galloping noises with his tongue - and still win a medal.

His exploits in winning an Olympic medal at 56 are remarkable. Even more so is his professionalism, dragging his young mount through the dressage and cross-country. Even more pleasing than that is to see his joy, at 56, expressed in the ability to relax and toast the win. No fights, no vomiting, no dubious approaches to women - just good fun.

That's what sport should be like - the professional mixed with the party - but so often isn't these days. People mostly get into sport because it's fun. It's great to see Todd and his team-mates embodying that.

SORRY, CHINA, but you did it to yourselves. Astonishing 16-year-old swimmer Yi Shi Wen may be a true sensation but she is also a victim of Chinese ambition.

Back in the '90s, Chinese women swimmers appeared at meetings, looking more than buff. The world chortled. What are they on, they asked, as the swimmers won loads of events and China denied everything.

Many had shoulders like bodybuilders and won multiple world titles in 1994 and Olympic titles in Atlanta 1996. But then seven were found to have taken performance enhancers after the Asian Games and matters got worse at the 1998 world championships in Perth.

Chinese swimmer Yuan Yuan and her coach were caught at the Australian border trying to smuggle in human growth hormone.

Another three Chinese swimmers were thrown out of those championships when further drugs were discovered. All told, 32 Chinese swimmers were caught taking drugs in the 1990s.

China cleaned house after that and maintain vociferously they have not fallen foul of the drugs testers. And neither they have. Except for former team-mate Li Zhesi, who was banned only a few months ago for EPO. So, when a 16-year-old sweeps the pool and finishes faster than crack US male swimmer Ryan Lochte - a scarcely believable occurrence - the world can be forgiven for cynicism.

The Chinese coaches made a valid point by instancing Michael Phelps' eight golds in Beijing and Missy Franklin's emergence in London - and asking why the world did not suspect them of doping.

Because they did not arrive in London 2012 carrying the deep chemical stain of the '90s.

- Herald on Sunday

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