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Athletes guard their gear against sabotage

Speed skaters competes during the ISU World Cup short track speed skating championships in Shanghai March 11, 2012.


From the sprinkling of dust on a table-tennis racquet to a tweak of a rower's oar pin, Canadian Olympians say there are endless ways for a saboteur to give himself an edge.

"I never let my skates out of my sight," six-time Olympic medalist Clara Hughes said in Toronto on Friday. "A lot of people think that most Olympic sports are all nice, and there's never anything sketchy that goes on, but competition brings out the best in people, but it can also bring out the worst."

On a day when hundreds of sports fans jammed Toronto's Maple Leaf Square to salute Canada's Olympic heroes, word of skulduggery in speed skating wasn't cause for much surprise among the athletes. Tampering with athletic equipment may be rare, they said, but most aren't leaving anything to chance.

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"There are guys who are paranoid about it," said Andrew Byrnes, a rower with the Canadian men's eight team that won silver in London. "They take their oars, they take their riggers with them when they leave at night and bring them back in the morning."

Andre Ho, 20, said he always keeps his table-tennis racquets close at hand. "If somebody wanted to tamper with it, it's possible," the rookie Olympian said. "For racquets it's really simple. They're so sensitive. If you put some dust on it or something like this, [the racquet] would be totally different."

News broke on Thursday that Canadian Olympic gold medalist and world champion Olivier Jean was the victim in an alleged case of sabotage prior to the 5,000-metre relay at the 2011 world speed-skating championships in Poland. Jean's skate was allegedly damaged before the race by U.S. skater Simon Cho, who was reportedly acting on the orders of the U.S. coach, Jae Su Chun. Canada finished last in the race and ended up with the bronze medal.

"It's a pretty crazy road to start going down, to start expecting that you can achieve excellence by screwing your compatriots or people from other countries. I hope it's not true," kayaker Adam van Koeverden said.

The potential for tampering seems obvious in sports that require technical equipment, but even athletes who compete in little more than shoes and shorts say even they keep a close watch over their stuff.

"We definitely make sure that the coaches who are helping us hold on to our bottles and not take it out of their sights," said race walker Rachel Seaman, 26, of Peterborough, Ont. "It's a problem for doping. You don't want anybody tampering with your drinks. We put a tight seal on it for sure."

Cory Niefer, a 36-year-old rifle shooter from Saskatoon, said it's not always the athlete or coach who crosses the line.

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"When I used to compete in biathlon," Niefer said, "we had some rifle issues with teammates and stuff like that. I heard that somebody was boring out people's [rifle] barrels … that it was actually a parent who did it to a fellow teammate."

Most athletes emphasized that cheating is a rarity in their sports and not something that consumes them.

Rower Conlin McCabe said there are numerous ways to tamper with rowing equipment. "You could scratch the boat. You could nick the fin. You could move the foot stretchers, you could change the rigging. There are so many moving parts to the oars. You could move the pin on the oars a millimetre and it would make a difference."

Yet, McCabe said, "it's something I have never worried about. Not for a second."

Added triathlete Simon Whitfield: "The bad decision of one individual isn't a major concern. I actually can't imagine it. The people in my sport – in fact, most athletes – are more apt to give each other [some] gear before a match."

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