The world of British pigeon racing is aflutter today over the scandalous revelation that Eamon Kelly, a preeminent fancier and reigning champion, cheated in the Tarbes National. Did he dope his avian athletes? Or kneecap another competitor using a very tiny baton?
No, folks. Kelly, aka "Feather Daddy," pulled off an even more elaborate hoax to win the 580-mile-race's bounty: a pretty £11,500 ($15,220 US). In an act that can only be compared to the antics of Tour de France swindler, Lance Armstrong, the seasoned pigeon racer microchipped a bird and calculated its record-setting time without ever setting it free from his Oxfordshire apartment.
According to The Guardian, race officials were initially suspicious when one of the 14 birds that Kelly registered in the marathon clocked in at faster-than-average speeds. The journey was supposed to take the bird from Oxfordshire to the south of France, however, the pigeon that actually made the trek to Tarbes wasn't the one that was microchipped. When referees realized that Kelly's winged winner, who averaged speeds of 40 miles per hour, was leagues away from other birds flying at similar speeds, they knew they had a cheater on their hands.
"I, Eamon Kelly, sincerely apologise to all my friends and fanciers over my stupid actions relating to the recent Tarbes race."
"I was tempted and fell," Kelly told The Sun in a statement. "A decision I will regret for the rest of my life. A sport that I love so much, that has given me untold pleasure and above all friendship I have thrown all away."
Pigeon racing isn't a stranger to the the dirty underbelly of international sport. In 2013, European fans of the sport were aghast when six Belgian birds tested positive for performance enhancing drugs. Elsewhere, in 2014, someone set a Newcastle aviary on fire, killing 400 champion birds.
In fancier forums, complaints from flyers underscore the seedy tactics used by cheaters. "Over the years, I have encountered many great flyers who I considered a true champion, but right now, in our club, we have a 'gentleman' [who] goes way beyond winning out of turn… I believe that he is somehow manipulating the electronic timer," said a user named "derf."
But Kelly seemed above all of this. He was described by peers as a "true worker," and was even a race controller for the National Flying Club. Like so many other esteemed sportsmen, Kelly's passion for pigeon racing dates back to his childhood, when he was taken under the wing of renowned fancier Frank Lloyd.
I can't help but wonder if, perhaps, Kelly is the victim here. In an effort to make sense of my feelings, I Googled "why do athletes cheat," and found a helpful article from CNN that said many scammers do so because of national, financial, and individual pressures. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization offered another explanation, saying money and fame can often push players into risky behavior.
Maybe Kelly just spent so much time at the top, he couldn't fathom the eventual journey back down. We might never know why he chose the low road that day, but if he's anything like his protégés, he'll be flying high in the sky in no time.