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“Today’s heroes…”: Thibaut Pinot and Guillaume Martin question Rafael Nadal’s use of anaesthetic injections during French Open

“We see too many athletes using this kind of practice in recent weeks,” said the Groupama-FDJ rider

After Rafael Nadal underlined his sporting ownership of a plot of land in the south-west of Paris by winning his fourteenth French Open title on Sunday, some of France’s leading cyclists have questioned the tennis star’s use of anaesthetic injections during the tournament.

Following his 22nd win at a Grand Slam event, a feat which pulls Nadal two clear of long-term rivals Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer in the all-time list, the 36-year-old revealed that he had required multiple injections throughout the two weeks to deal with a chronic foot injury, to the extent that the Spaniard said that his left foot was “asleep” during his emphatic victory over Casper Ruud.

When asked by former Austrian pro and Eurosport presenter Barbara Schett how many anaesthetic injections – perfectly legal in tennis – he had received during the tournament, Nadal replied: “It's better that you don't know.”

That particular exchange prompted French darling Thibaut Pinot – who himself has been dogged by a chronic back injury in recent years – to tweet: “Today’s heroes…”

Pinot’s response was questioned by French tennis player Jonathan Eysseric, knocked out in the first round of the mixed doubles at Roland Garros, who wrote that the Groupama-FDJ rider’s tweet was one of “sadness”.

“Why?” Pinot, seeking to clarify his remarks, replied this morning. “Because I have my convictions, a way of seeing sport and sports performance differently than yours maybe?

“My tweet (three words) which is causing so much reaction fell on Nadal but it could have been a golfer, horse rider, handballer, basketball player, fencer, rugby player, weightlifter, skier, footballer, surfer, cyclist, etc…

“In no case his career or his talent are called into question here. We see too many athletes using this kind of practice in recent weeks.

“I almost lost two of surely the most beautiful years of my career to take care of my back, it was difficult but I am proud of it today.

“The methods [used by Nadal] are simply prohibited in my sport, which is unfortunately so decried. Here is a little more precision on the sadness of my tweet.”

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Pinot hasn’t shied away from speaking about the long shadow of doping which still hangs over professional cycling.

Last year, when discussing a cortisone injection he received out of competition in the winter to treat his back pain, Pinot said that the use of corticosteroids in cycling, aided by the legal application of TUEs such as the ones received by Bradley Wiggins before the 2011 and 2012 Tours de France, “pisses me off”.

The 32-year-old also claimed that the peloton remains defined by an internal hierarchy of those willing and unwilling to resort to medical aid – a dichotomy famously described by French cyclists of the 1990s and 2000s as “un peloton à deux vitesses”.

> Money-driven "two speed peloton" leaves French cycling in the shade

“When you have an injection or you use cortisone, there are at least three weeks of effects. Some do [it] just before the races. You are out of competition, but the effect is there,” he told L’Équipe at the time.

“I'm the complete opposite of all of that, but we're still in two-speed cycling I think.

“A guy who has a TUE has no place being on a bicycle. He is not fit to compete."

In an interview with L’Équipe this week, Pinot’s compatriot Guillaume Martin – an ever-attacking presence at the front of the recent Giro d’Italia – also pointed out that Nadal’s ‘treatment’ would not be allowed under cycling’s anti-doping regulations.

Guillaume Martin, 2021 Tour de France (Alex Broadway/SWpix.com)

Guillaume Martin, 2021 Tour de France (Alex Broadway/SWpix.com)

“If a cyclist does the same thing, it’s already forbidden,” Cofidis rider Martin said. “But even if it weren’t, everyone would call him doped because there is such a cultural background, such connotations attached to the bike.

“While people praise Nadal for being able to go this far in pain. I believe that [AC Milan forward] Zlatan Ibrahimovic also spoke about his knee injections.

“They pass for heroes because they go far in pain, but in fact, they use substances to go far in pain and again, it’s very borderline.

“The winner on the bike, in particular that of the Tour de France, even if there is no element behind it, he is systematically accused of doping.”

Martin continued: “Tennis, for example, has quite similar parameters with cycling, it’s an endurance sport with accelerations, so I think the same products can have a doping effect. In that case, I don’t see why there would be different regulations.

“There is a part of endurance in tennis, in football, and anyway, there have been proven cases of doping in these sports, so there was an interest.

“The MPCC [a collection of teams, including Martin and Pinot’s Cofidis and Groupama-FDJ squads, signed up to more stringent anti-doping rules] publishes statistics quite regularly and in terms of the number of positive athletes compared to the number of tests, cycling comes far behind many other sports.”

> British Cycling admits "serious failings" in record keeping as it emerges Team Sky ordered more Triamcinolone than was needed for Wiggins TUEs

When asked if the definition of doping can stretch beyond what is currently permitted under the sport’s laws (again, another issue that has followed Team Sky and Ineos in recent years, exemplified by the squad’s apparent legalistic commitment to the ‘thin blue line’), Martin replied: “This is a great question, which I have often asked myself.

“The UCI anti-doping regulations, for me are a minimum. There are plenty of things that are allowed and that I forbid myself. It’s the whole question of grey areas, the use of certain drugs that are normally used to treat cancers, multiple sclerosis for example.

“I don’t see myself taking this kind of thing to be a better cyclist. Yet it is allowed. The anti-doping agencies are always behind the times, so I don’t think you have to wait for them to position themselves to adopt their own positions.

“It is up to everyone to build their own ethics. I accept that sometimes my results are less good because I follow this ethic, but nevertheless I remain consistent with myself and I am satisfied with that.”

“To say that the limit is between what is prohibited and authorised, that does not seem to me the right criterion,” says the thoughtful Martin, who obtained a master’s degree in Philosophy from Paris Nanterre University.

“So it’s more a question of personal ethics, say do I need to take paracetamol to do a bike race? What’s the meaning of all this? For me, it loses all meaning if we start using substances.

“The process of telling myself that I am going to take a pill to be better, that bothers me.”

> Spain's sports minister promises doping reform as French puppet show takes pop at rivals across Pyrenees

This week’s sceptical response from the French cycling community isn’t the first time that Nadal’s sporting integrity has been questioned in l'Hexagone.

In 2011, five years after a blood doping ring organised by Madrid-based doctor Eufemiano Fuentes was busted by Spanish police, retired French tennis player Yannick Noah, writing in Le Monde, likened the performance of Spanish athletes such as Nadal, Alberto Contador, and the national football team, to the country having discovered some sort of ‘magic potion’ similar to that which enabled the cartoon character Asterix and his sidekick Obelix to take on the Roman army single-handedly.

A year later, a satirical puppet show on French TV’s Canal+ was criticised by Spain’s then-prime minister Mariano Rajoy after it suggested – with little in the way of subtlety – that the performances of Nadal, Contador, NBA star Pau Gasol and Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas were receiving an artificial boost.

“I'm more motivated than ever to clean up Spain's image,” Nadal said at the time. “Spanish sport is characterised by sacrifice, humility and spirit of overcoming adversity that all athletes have.

“You can't accuse someone of something you have no proof of, even if it's humorous. France is obsessed with us.”

Ryan joined road.cc in December 2021 and since then has kept the site’s readers and listeners informed and enthralled (well at least occasionally) on news, the live blog, and the road.cc Podcast. After boarding a wrong bus at the world championships and ruining a good pair of jeans at the cyclocross, he now serves as road.cc’s senior news writer. Before his foray into cycling journalism, he wallowed in the equally pitiless world of academia, where he wrote a book about Victorian politics and droned on about cycling and bikes to classes of bored students (while taking every chance he could get to talk about cycling in print or on the radio). He can be found riding his bike very slowly around the narrow, scenic country lanes of Co. Down.

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12 comments

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IanMK | 2 years ago
1 like

“You can't accuse someone of something you have no proof of, even if it's humorous.”

This is the problem. The Fuentes enquiry specifically decided not look beyond cycling. Hence, many believe that there is evidence that was buried. I didn't see all the fooballers and tennis players that used him demanding that the records be released in order to clear their name. They are, imo, hiding behind innocent until proven guilty.

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Velophaart_95 replied to IanMK | 2 years ago
1 like

Football & tennis are too powerful, and merely sweep it under the carpet; athletics & cycling are easier targets. It's not right, but that's how it is.....

I'm not sure what the answer is.....

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Secret_squirrel replied to Velophaart_95 | 2 years ago
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Do you have a basis for that statement?  According to this the football regime is pretty agressive.  More so than athletics for instance.

https://www.goal.com/en/news/how-often-are-footballers-drug-tested/16c30...

 

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Velophaart_95 replied to Secret_squirrel | 2 years ago
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I wouldn't believe that; football, including journalists are in denial. "It's a skill sport, so why do they need to dope" is a common excuse given.

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IanMK replied to Velophaart_95 | 2 years ago
1 like

It's not going to be just denial it's the need for access to be able to continue to do the job. Ask David Walsh.

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IanMK replied to Secret_squirrel | 2 years ago
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Did you see the recent story that claims 63% of the Liverpool first squad are asthmatic so I think we can suspect that the use of TUEs is widespread.

I can't comment on athletics but I thought a cyclist that was wearing yellow at the Tour de France, for example, went straight to doping control at the end of the day. Were Real Madrid all tested following their victory last week?

I think there's been a lot of suspicion about football for a while. They have very very deep pockets. Didn't Rio Ferdinand basically drive off when testers turned up at Carrington once.

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Rendel Harris | 2 years ago
3 likes

It's a fair point, I can remember many, many years back at the 1988 Seoul Olympics when Britain's Peter Elliott was being praised to the skies for his bravery in running the 1500m and winning silver after multiple painkilling cortisone injections; at the same Olympics, of course, Ben Johnson found eternal infamy by winning 100 m gold on steroids and I couldn't help wondering why one drug without which you couldn't win was okay but another wasn't...

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Global Nomad | 2 years ago
1 like

there is perhaps a generational change going on - between the pain and suffering heros of the older athletes and the younger generation who will protect their physical and mental health as a priority above continuing at any cost. 

having said that, we all know that the need to win is so much a part of the professional athlete and all the pressures and income related to that - most have very short careeres in which to make an impact and set up their futures, so the pressure is always there. 

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vthejk | 2 years ago
4 likes

This 'hero' complex stemming from the ability to resist pain is sadly all to common. We constantly hear about athletes completing events in frankly inhumane conditions and with a staggering disregard for their own physical well-being (for people who rely so heavily on their bodies, anyway). Andre Agassi was very forthright about this in Open

I think it's toxic and overrated tbh. In my preferred discipline (ultra distance cycling), while others would push on and injure themselves just to complete a race, if I am unable to compete comfortably or without risk to my personal health and well-being, I will not compete. The line between struggling to complete an event and inflicting harm on oneself is vanishingly small.

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Secret_squirrel replied to vthejk | 2 years ago
2 likes

I think all professional  - any many amateur - athletes have accepted they are going to push their bodies to destruction very early in their careers.  Presumably they see it as part of "the job" and a willing sacrifice.  The only thing that has changed recently is the amount of medical support avaible to prolong that destruction.  But then again look at dopers, they've been dropping dead for decades.

Hell look at the first ancient greek marathon runner.  Dropped dead after passing on his message.

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SimoninSpalding replied to Secret_squirrel | 2 years ago
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I have a really long (although often unreliable) memory and I have recollections of retired footballers in the 90s having all sorts of musculoskeletal issues due to having pain killing injections week in/ week out during their playing careers through the 70s/80s. I think football is much better now (although you will still hear punidts and managers criticising players for not "playing through the pain"). It sounds like tennis has a long way to go, and I believe the practice is also commonplace in golf. 

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Awavey replied to SimoninSpalding | 2 years ago
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In 2017 it came to light,because Mourinho publically criticised the FA for it, that Phil Jones was given 6 anesthetic injections, which was allegedly the standard treatment for players reporting knocks in training, to play in one friendly game for England.

They might not be using cortisone as much as they did, but I think theres plenty of change a no needles policy in many sports could achieve.

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