Sandro Donati has dedicated most of his adult life to the fight against doping in sport. The Rome-born former Italian athletics sprint coach has made it his business to stir up, or, as he puts it in the terminology of man of leftist leaning, “raise doubt about the contradictions with explanations and act like hydrochloric acid, like a corrosive.”
That is why Donati was recently in Madrid, where he delivered a speech during a conference organized by the Spanish Anti-Doping Agency.
It is also what he does in Italy on a perpetual tour to promote his book, Lo sport del doping (or, The sport of doping), which has sold 18,000 copies in a year; indeed, it is what he has been doing for 25 years since a fateful day in 1987 when he spotted, proved and reported irregularities in the measurements being taken by officials at the Rome World Championships to ensure top Italian long jumper Giovanni Evangelisti secured a bronze medal.
“It was the first time an athlete had been stripped of a medal days after an event when cheating was proven. I went from being a reputable coach on the national athletics team to a minor role with the juniors and, months later, to being the occupant of a basement in the federation building whose job was to fold his arms. It was there that I started to write my first book, Campeones sin valor [or, Worthless champions],” says Donati. “Yes, I have lost a lot through my life of whistleblowing but I don’t like the role of victim that many people label me with; I prefer to think that I have made the system lose a lot more.”
A few short years after Evangelisti’s rigged jump, organized by the late president of the International Association of Athletics Federations, Primo Nebiolo, Donati became the first person to publicly shine a light on the widespread use of EPO in cycling, and in sport in general.
“I did it, yes, through an ethical imperative, but above all guided by my practical mentality as a coach. For a trainer, achieving the goal of an athlete gaining hundredths of a second was a question of painstaking work on small technical details. But EPO arrived on the scene and overnight athletes improved their times by seconds and it destroyed the role of coaches. With EPO a generation of coaches without scruples emerged that not only swept us away but that also had the cheek to write books on their training methods; books that had no value whatsoever, that were falsehoods, that came from budgets for doping... And let us not forget that EPO did not only kill sport culturally, but also athletes physically.”
Through Donati’s tireless efforts, Italian sports scientists who had enjoyed their time on a pedestal, such as Francesco Conconi and Michele Ferrari, were brought down in the 1990s. And although the hope that times have changed is a prevalent one, Donati remains skeptical. Very skeptical: “I do not remember the name of any champion, of any world record holder, from 1990 up to now. None of them are worth anything. They are records without human worth,” he says. “The 12 years between 1988 and 2000, when EPO was undetectable, served to eliminate all of the honest people from sport; coaches, athletes, directors, doctors... It resulted in an ethnic cleansing of honesty in sport. The honest people still have to win back the world of sport.”