The venue: Queen’s University Playing Fields in Belfast.
The mood: sombre, yet defiant.
A portion of the sizable crowd that have gathered to watch the final stages of Senior Men’s race at the Irish inter-club Cross Country Championships boo as Leevale’s Cathal Lombard wins the title ahead of South-African born Alistair Cragg. The remainder watch quietly in disappointment.
Lombard is making his first appearance at a national level following a two-year doping ban for EPO use. The message the Belfast crowd deliver is loud and clear: Lombard is not welcome. He may have served his time in the eyes of anti-doping bodies, but not in the eyes of Irish athletics fans. They are a much tougher crowd to win around.
Lombard announced his retirement from athletics that afternoon. We’ll never really know if that was always his intention, or if the cold reception he received in Belfast (and at lower key races over the previous months) expediated his decision to walk away. Either way, he never ran competitively again. And few were disappointed to see the back of him.
As the original news emerged in Ireland, national governing body officials were quick to distance themselves from the then shamed Spaniard, despite his close ties with Rob Heffernan and Olive Loughnane. Perhaps fearful of a backlash from the fans who were so vocally unforgiving in Lombard’s case, Patsy McGonagle, the then Athletics Ireland High Performance Committee Chairman, tried to reassure the Irish public whose taxes help fund high performance athletes, by stating that Heffernan and Loughnane were both largely based in Ireland and only had occasional contact with Fernandez. He added that "in the circumstances we must reassess that arrangement and we will definitely be making alternative technical coaching arrangements for our athletes".
Whatever those “alternative technical coaching arrangements” were, they never seemed to hinder Heffernan’s continued contact with the Spaniard, despite much denial along the way.
McGonagle, the Irish Olympic team manager, was again quoted in national newspapers in July 2012, playing down the link, following reports the continued association between Heffernan and the then-banned Spaniard when the Irish team had a training camp in Fernandez’s home town of Guadix. “There is no question and there never has been of Fernandez coaching Robert Heffernan - or any of the Irish walkers”, McGonagle states.
The same article also contains strong words from Liam O’Reilly, an Irish Olympic team coach and the camp leader during that Guadix trip. “I think what appeared was a terrible reflection on journalistic standards. All the positive effort and hard work has been ignored simply because he [Heffernan] knows somebody who has done something wrong…Then somebody comes along and tries to insinuate or imply that he is doing something wrong. I think that is unacceptable.”
Heffernan himself initially played down the link, despite much evidence to the contrary. As time passed, however, and perhaps sensing the changing mood of Irish athletics fans – a World title and an Olympic medal can work wonders – Heffernan and his cronies became less concerned about how the links were perceived, with regular social media posts of them training together. Fernandez, it appears, had fully morphed into Heffernan’s coach, even if his wife Marian was still being used as a cover – Athletics Ireland, perhaps, wouldn’t tolerate the name of a drug cheat next to one of their athletes.
Fellow Irish racewalkers Alex Wright, Brendan Boyce and Cian McManamon were also benefiting from the training opportunities that Fernandez was providing in Spain, and elsewhere, with Heffernan being credited as their coach.
And then, once it became clear that, bar a handful of voices, the Irish population no longer had the zero-tolerance to doping cheats they once had, the stage was set for Fernandez to finally receive the credit he deserved. In early August 2017 the Athletics Ireland website listed Pacquillo Fernandez as Wright’s coach on the team announcement for the World Championships in London later that month.
“Alternative technical coaching arrangements”, it seems, had little to do with protecting the integrity of the sport and everything to do with fobbing off the journalists and saying the right things to protect reputations until the whole issue blew over.
And in some ways, all of this is understandable. Heffernan and Fernandez were friends. Maybe Fernandez would never have used those products – he just fancied keeping them around, just in case he changed his mind again. And yes, he’s served his time. Maybe a two-year ban changes people. And maybe the reputations of Heffernan, Wright, et al., should not be tainted by who they choose to hang around with. I get all that. I even get that Fernandez may be a (mostly) good and nice guy.
And maybe, he is the best coach around.
I get all that. Even if I don't like it.
What I don’t get is why we have to involve the children. And why Fernandez has to be turned into some sort of icon.
Our group from Sligo Academy of Race Walkers training with the best coaches in Spain @PaquilloFrdez @SligoRunners @gaynorroddy pic.twitter.com/C5XGAywihh— Raymond Flynn (@RAYMONDFLYNN1) October 31, 2018
Just over a decade on from that spring afternoon in Belfast, much has changed, it appears, in terms of attitudes to dopers in Ireland.
The Irish crowd have gone soft.
Maybe Lombard should have stuck around a little longer.
Maybe he should have offered to help coach some kids!
Yes, that might have changed the Irish public’s attitude towards him.