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August 25, 2008 — If the news for Denis Lynch in Hong Kong on Thursday was shattering, it wasn’t much better back in his native Tipperary on Friday.
The newspaper headlines were rough, reporters were besieging the family home and his parents had had a sleepless night.
His horse, Lantinus — ranked number one in the world — had tested positive for a banned substance, he’d been suspended from the Olympics just hours before the showjumping final and his reputation as an honest sportsman had been tarnished.
Aggrieved by the media coverage and distressed for his family, Lynch, in the early hours of Saturday morning Hong Kong time, spoke by phone from his hotel bedroom to the Sunday Independent in a bid to set the record straight.
“I didn’t cheat,” he said, “and I’ve no reason to cheat. I’m on the best horse in the world, why would I cheat? I’ve won four five-star Grands Prix (this year), I’m in the top 20 in the world, I know what I’ve done all year and I did nothing different (for the Olympics).”
Lantinus has been tested 12 times this year and Lynch voluntarily submitted the horse again for testing after the 10-year-old gelding arrived in Hong Kong for the Games, “to make sure the horse was clean”.
This was his 11th test, the result was negative. The 12th was taken after the second round of jumping last Sunday. At about 2:15pm on Thursday Lynch was informed by the showjumping team manager Robert Splaine that this test had produced a positive result.
They met with officials and veterinarians from the international equestrian federation, the FEI, who told them that traces of a substance called capsaicin had been found in the animal’s sample. It had been found in three other horses which were also banned from competing in the final.
At a subsequent press conference senior FEI officials said capsaicin was a prohibited substance because its pain-relieving properties were potentially performance-enhancing. It also had “hypersensitisation” properties: if applied to a horse’s shins it could inflame them, thereby inducing the animal to jump higher to avoid painful contact with a fence — a practice known as ‘chemical rapping’.
Paul Farrington, a vet with the FEI, said capsaicin had always been banned but only recently had a test been developed to detect it.
But Lynch claims that “the FEI moved the goalposts” for the Beijing Games. “How can a horse test negative all year and then test positive when I’ve changed nothing? That’s the question. I didn’t change anything, I did nothing different (for the Games), why change anything when I was doing the same thing all year and winning?
The substance is contained in an ointment sold commercially as Equi-Block. “I’ve been using this product for eight years,” said Lynch. “And a lot of international riders have been using the product for the last eight years, over half of them I would say. You can buy it from every vet, in every tack shop, at shows all over the world. It does not make a lame horse sound, it does not make a horse jump higher. It’s a cream that we rub on a horse’s back to warm him up and make him loose.”
Lynch said he was the only one of the four suspended riders who spoke to the media after the story broke. During his press conference he produced a tub of Equi-Block. The label on the product has a specially highlighted piece of information: ‘Contains CAPSAICIN. Will not test positive’. Did this not trigger alarm bells for Lynch?
“But everyone’s been using it! Fifteen horses were tested and four were positive. If 40 horses were tested then 14 would have tested positive and what would have happened then? If you use it (Equi-Block) over eight years and I’ve been tested and tested and tested, why would you think it was a doping product? It’s not about cheating, it’s got nothing to do with cheating.”
But shouldn’t he have checked out what sort of substance capsaicin was, given that it was linked with the words ‘positive’ and ‘test’ on the label of the product? “Do you know how much (capsaicin) is in the cream? Well I don’t either. And yesterday (Thursday) the FEI couldn’t tell me how much of the substance was in the sample. They couldn’t say how long he (Lantinus) was positive: was it two days in his system, was it two hours in his system? They couldn’t tell me anything.”
He also rejected any suggestion that he was engaged in chemical rapping. “Jesus I don’t have a clue about it. I’ve used it on horses’ backs, that’s it. There’s no ifs and buts anymore. That’s all. I’ve got nothing to do with it, I know nothing about it, I never want to have anything to do with it.”
On Thursday evening while the final was underway, Lynch returned to his hotel and “closed the door”. He didn’t watch the final on television, he was in a state of shock. On Friday morning he woke up to headlines that humiliated him and news from home that upset him further.
“My mum called me and said reporters were there tormenting them. She hasn’t slept, my father hasn’t slept. They’re getting hammered by the media. It’s sickening. Sickening. I’ve got fantastic support from my family, my friends, my sponsors, people in Tipperary and from all around the country. And then to be slaughtered like that — it’s wrong.”
Lynch, 32, and his horse jumped three rounds in Beijing. The first two were clear bar time penalties and in the third he faulted only at the water jump. The combination was in superb form and on course for a high finish in the final.
“I belonged in the ring that day. That was my dream. I worked 15 years to get there. I didn’t go to the Olympics hoping to come 17th or 24th or whatever. I went there with a realistic chance of a medal. And then to be shot down like this . . .”
He knows he will be suspended from competition for a period of time. “But whatever (sanction) they give me will be nothing compared to this. To have everything taken away from you — the biggest thing you could ever do in this sport is to represent your country at the Olympics and to have it taken away from you like that is a total shock.”
Yesterday morning Lynch left Hong Kong for Germany where he lives with his partner Simona and their four-year-old daughter. He will return to Tipperary town “to thank the people for their support before the Olympics and especially for their support now. And afterwards life has got to move on.”
But he left Hong Kong behind him with a world of regrets. He admits to being stunned and incredibly disappointed. “I went out there on a mission: to win a gold medal, or a medal of some sort, and that was it. Nothing else.
“And up to a quarter past two yesterday, everything was perfect.”