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One would think that being European record holder for the marathon might lend a certain cachet to Benoît Zwierzchiewski. A Great White Hope, so to speak, who could challenge the east Africans who dominate the event.
But Frenchman Zwierzchiewski has an image problem. Not his name, which few but Poles and immediate French family can pronounce, leading to the truncation to Benoît “Z”.
This grandson of a Polish immigrant miner to north-eastern France believes that he is suffering from an excess of the suspicion that attaches itself to any athlete nowadays who produces a superlative performance.
It began for Zwierzchiewski following his emulation of Portuguese Antonio Pinto’s European record of 2hr 6min 36sec in the 2003 Paris Marathon.
Zwierzchiewski accepts that he should become a target for drug testing, like any leading athlete. But despite regular, unannounced tests proving negative, he smelled a rat when he was detained by drugs police and his house was searched in October 2005. News of the incident was leaked to the press, along with a suggestion that drugs were found.
Apart from dietary supplements, two unopened, out-of-date boxes of DHEA, a steroid for menopausal women – originally destined, he said, for his grandmother – were found and the matter ended there. But, as he said recently: “When bad news is broadcast, people are ready to believe and denials are either never published or are 10 times smaller.”
It did not help that he had a reputation for having an “attitude”, largely because of an incident at the French team’s media conference prior to the 2003 World Athletics Championships in Paris. Exasperated at what he felt was uninformed criticism from head coach Robert Poirier, Zwierzchiewski withdrew from the team, throwing his national vest at Poirier and telling him that if he knew so much about the marathon he should run the race himself.
“I had the front page of L’Equipe [the national sports daily] all to myself the next morning,” he told me, part rueful, part proud.
His appearance also tends to bolster a “bolshy” image. Shaven-headed, wearing tight black jeans and black shirt unbuttoned to mid-chest, with a semi-permanent wry smile, he looks like a cross between Yul Brynner and Jack Palance.
I must confess that I, too, was influenced by the rumours. When I saw him on the start list for last month’s Dubai Marathon, I asked his manager what had happened regarding his drug “bust”, as did an American colleague, who e-mailed me with the same question.
And later a spokeswoman for the New York Marathon circumlocuted around Central Park rather than admit that he simply was not welcome to run in the race.
“There are concerns about his involvement in doping,” said Dave Bedford, the London Marathon race director. “I think victimised is too strong – if it were a choice of two athletes of the same calibre and one was without any of that baggage and one was ‘with’, we’d take the one without, whether it was justified or not.”
Zwierzchiewski has every right to be exasperated with all this. But despite his reputation and fearsome appearance, he turns out to be charming. He is an eloquent advocate for himself and his sport – and for drug testing.
He is upbeat about his situation, managing to laugh at the contradiction of a European record holder who has never tested positive being blackballed from marathons, “while Julio Rey [of Spain] is banned for two years for EPO [the drug that boosts red blood cell production], and he’s welcome anywhere”.
As befits the image of the outlaw, he has always been something of a loner. He won the European Junior 5,000m and 10,000m in 1995, and, unusually for a young European, opted for the marathon almost immediately.
“I was always impressed by these stories of Africans running to school, so I did it too, 10km with my satchel on my back. I’d already got a kit contract with Nike after I ran 8min 10sec for 3,000m when I was 15 and the year after they started paying me. So I’ve always been a professional runner. But these rumours are scaring off sponsors.”
Tired of training in north European weather, Zwierzchiewski moved to Marseille in 2002 and teamed up with coach Joseph Mahmoud, an Olympic steeplechase medallist and former European record holder.
“I feel for him,” said Mahmoud this week. “If he races too much, he’s suspect. If he races too little, he’s suspect. He’s been tested out of competition [without prior warning] dozens of times and passed every one.”
Competitively, Zwierzchiewski has had a chequered career, mixing highs such as his European record with lows, including falls in the New York and European championship marathons of 2004 and 2005. And he is frequently injured, an inevitable result, says Mahmoud, of training up to 240km a week.
Zwierzchiewski acted as a perfect pacemaker in Dubai, delivering the lead group to halfway spot on schedule. That served to ease him back into racing after his latest injury and prepare for a marathon that has enlisted him: Rotterdam in April.
At 30, he is insistent that the end is a long way off. Carlos Lopes, for example, won the Olympic marathon at 37. “The best is yet to come. I’ve got 18 months to prepare for Beijing [the 2008 Olympics] and I intend to be in London 2012 as well. I’ve washed my hands of the [French athletics] federation. It’s up to me alone to go for victories. I’ve got the time.”