The story behind the story: Paralympian Michael Gallagher on his EPO doping

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When we found out a few months back that Aussie Paralympian Michael Gallagher had tested positive for EPO, it came as quite the shock. Here in his home state of Victoria, local racers and others in the cycling scene were disappointed, frustrated and confused. Gallagher was well-liked, well-respected and the last rider many thought would turn to doping.

The news broke on September 2 via an Australian Sports Anti-Doping Agency (ASADA) press release and Twitter. We wrote an initial story, then followed up a few days later when Gallagher published a heartfelt post on his Facebook page, explaining why he’d turned to EPO.

Both articles generated plenty of discussion on CyclingTips and through our social media channels. The news had touched a nerve, particularly in Victoria, and especially for those that had raced against Gallagher.

A few months passed before we decided to reach out to Gallagher again, to ask if he’d like to tell his story. We sent him a direct message on Twitter, expecting him not to reply. Normally riders who get caught for doping aren’t interested in chatting to the media … at least until they’ve got a book to sell or some other vested interest.

But to our great surprise, Gallagher got back a short time later and said he’d be happy to have a chat.

I called Gallagher the evening after our Twitter exchange. He was on his way home from a new job. With his full-time cycling career all but over, he’d had to find a 9-5 office job. As he drove home, we spoke about what lead him to doping, what he took, how long he was taking it for, how often, how he tried to evade testers, and more.

He was incredibly candid. Normally in an interview of that sort you’ll start with the easy questions, and ask the harder ones later on, once you’ve built a rapport. But from the start it became clear that Gallagher was happy to answer just about anything. I got the sense that telling his story was part of the process of moving on. That in order to move on with his life, he’d need to address, head on, what he’d done and why.

He made it clear as we spoke that, while he was happy to get his story out there, he didn’t want any part in a how-to guide to doping. He didn’t want to answer some questions – “How much EPO did you take and how many times a week?” That was completely fine by me. As it was I had more information about his procurement and use of EPO than I could reasonably publish in good conscience.

I left out the most revealing details and deliberately obscured some others. I’m not naive though — the information is out there and as Gallagher found, if you’re motivated enough it’s relatively easy to find out how to acquire and use EPO.

In writing the piece my goal was to avoid casting any sort of judgment on Gallagher or what he’d done. This wasn’t an opinion or commentary piece, and while I knew many of our commenters would want me to excoriate Gallagher, I didn’t feel it was my place to do so.

I didn’t want to tell readers that they should be angry or disappointed, nor that they should have sympathy for Gallagher. Instead I wanted to present the facts as I understood them and let the readers decide what to make of Gallagher and his decision to cheat.

As is customary when we publish an article of this sort, we had some commenters tell us we shouldn’t be giving dopers a platform. Their feeling was that Gallagher’s mistakes — like those of so many before him — meant he didn’t deserve a chance to tell his story and that we shouldn’t be giving him a place to do so.

I can understand people’s frustration – cycling has suffered so much at the hands of cheats and there’s a desire to be rid of all that would bring the sport into disrepute. I get it. But I think there’s more to the story.

If our goal is to make it harder and less appealing for people to cheat, then we need to understand the forces that lead people down that path. And who better to speak in that case than those that have themselves cheated.

The sport has learned much from the likes of Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis and others who broke the rules and then spoke openly about doing so. We’ve learned about the factors that lead riders down that path; the pressures both internal and external, and the toll that doping can take on an individual and the people around them.

Far from being a black-and-white case of cheating, people’s doping stories often have a lot to tell us about the human condition as well. Such is the case with Michael Gallagher.

There’s no clearer example of this than when Gallagher himself admits “It’s a good thing I got caught”. At every step along the way, he knew what he was doing was wrong. And yet, he persisted, putting his chances of a third Paralympic gold medal at risk, not to mention his reputation.

To me, there’s real value in understanding what lead Gallagher to that point and the impact the decision to dope had on his career and him as a person.

Of course, if we want to continue cleaning up the sport, having people like Gallagher tell their story to the media is only part of the puzzle. They also need them to be candid with the relevant authorities. Thankfully, Michael Gallagher has spoken to ASADA and, as far as I’m aware, he’s given them everything they were after and then some. Hopefully that information can be put to good use.

If you haven’t already, I’d encourage you to have a read of Michael Gallagher’s story at CyclingTips here.

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