Birds on drugs rock the world of pigeon racing

October 28, 2013 12:00 am | Updated 05:36 am IST

They no doubt would plead ignorance. Or blame their coaches. Or say they were victims of jealous rivals who spiked their water bottles with banned substances, or claim that the liquid they had been squirting under their tongues was only flaxseed oil, not performance-enhancing drugs meant to turn them into rockets.

They would blame anyone but themselves.

But that’s only if they could talk —which they can’t. That is because the latest doping scandal in sports does not involve Tour de France-winning cyclists or All-Star third basemen or Olympic sprinters. This one is about birds.

The world of pigeon racing was rocked to its core this week — no joke —when six Belgian birds failed drug tests for banned performance-enhancing drugs.

According to multiple news reports, five birds tested positive for a human painkiller that combats inflammation, and another tested positive for cocaine. Top officials at an association of pigeon fanciers in the country said they were shocked at the news.

Others in the sport said that they were not surprised that pigeons had been caught doping because pigeon racing has gained in popularity in recent years, becoming a big-money, even a glamorous, endeavour. In May, a pigeon named Usain Bolt —for the Olympic sprinting champion from Jamaica —was sold to a Chinese businessman for about $430,000.

We can only pretend to know what evils exist within the downy underbelly of pigeon racing, but it could be fun to guess. So let’s make something up:

The identities of the birds who tested positive are not known. Two people briefed on the situation, however, said that pigeons named Ben Johnson, Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong were under suspicion. Those people did not want their names published because they did not want to be seen as violating pigeon racing’s well-known code of silence, which for decades has kept the sport’s culture of doping out of the public’s eye.

The pigeons, being pigeons, were unavailable for comment. If they could talk, they would almost certainly say that the drug testing — conducted by an overseas lab, after the Belgian drug testers found nothing —was flawed, or that the whole system was flawed. They would claim that the testers were on a witch hunt, or had mishandled their samples. Or that cocaine in your system really doesn’t give you an advantage anyway.

Besides, it was common knowledge in every coop in Belgium that racers were doping. How can it really be cheating when every other top pigeon was doing it, too?

One of the pigeons caught up in the current case — a bird that had used performance-enhancing drugs in the past — was recently tied to a pigeon-doping clinic in Miami. Suspended with several others for his role in that case, his case went to appeal, and he continued to compete. He was even a starter on his team because, well, the team was lagging and it needed him in the lineup.

It could all be really funny, but it’s not. It’s one thing when athletes choose to shoot drugs into their bodies or pop pills or potions because they are doing it for their own benefit. It’s quite another thing when people dope animals to win.

As in horse racing — which has had its own doping problems — pigeon racing involves gambling and a possible big payday for the owner of the winning bird. And, as in horse racing, the owners are putting their animals’ well-being and lives at risk for fun and money.

Last year, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals published the results of a 15-month investigation into pigeon racing in the United States, which it called “a multimillion-dollar illegal gambling industry”. PETA concluded that more than 60 per cent of pigeons who race — in events that can be as long as 600 miles — become lost or die during an event because of bad weather, electrical lines, predators or exhaustion. Pigeons who are not fast enough or deemed good for breeding are “culled” through suffocation, drowning, neck-breaking, gassing or decapitation.

One pigeon owner told PETA’s investigators that the first thing pigeon racers need to know when starting out in the sport is “how to kill pigeons”.

And that, certainly, is not funny. — New York Times News Service

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