Pretoria - It's been a brutal three years for one of South Africa’s best-known sports scientists - and it’s still not over.
Dr Tim Noakes has been vilified and disowned. He’s been betrayed by people he once considered close collaborators and friends for, as he wryly puts it, changing his diet.
The man who taught runners how to run, who gave Lewis Pugh the scientific assurance that he could swim in sub-zero waters wearing only a Speedo and Jake White the confidence to rest players to the ire of Springbok fans, but then win the World Cup, found himself on trial among his peers for daring to go against accepted medical dogma.
The Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) charged him with conduct unbecoming a doctor. He’d answered a tweet by providing a generic opinion about breastfeeding and his low-carb, high-fat (LCHF), or Banting, diet.
That tweet was posted on February 5, 2015. It would take three years before he was put on the stand to be grilled on his views.
In April this year, the panel threw out the charge.
Noakes has no regrets. Not since his book about the entire saga has been published.
“It could have destroyed me, my marriage. But a week ago my wife said to me as she looked at the book: ‘It’s all been worthwhile.’ She’s incredible,” he said, his eyes misting slightly. “This could have finished us but, in the end, we won.”
He’s paid a huge price, though. His reputation as one of the leading sports scientists in the world has been tarnished.
“There’ll always be people who think I’m a quack. Others will say I won only because of a technicality. That’s the downside. The upside is that the publicity of the trial has been worth tens of millions of rand for the propagation of the LCHF diet.
“I was put on the stand for nine days. I didn’t have to retract a single thing. I’m probably the first scientist who has had to defend their beliefs under oath since Galileo.
“If someone comes up to me who has read the book and says ‘I still don’t believe in the LCHF diet’, I’ll say you didn’t read the book.”
The tweet was innocuous, but it took years to prove that.
Noakes wonders if the council wasn’t out for a high-profile scalp following its failure to call apartheid’s “DrDeath”, Wouter Basson, to account - that and the industrial capture of the medical profession by big business determined to protect their nutritional dogma and the economies that are underpinned by it.
“Six days before I even tweeted, there were e-mails back and forth between dietitians about sorting out the ‘Tim Noakes problem’.
“The HPCSA were highly unprofessional and unethical. They broke their own rules to make up this case. I’m disgusted by my former colleagues,” he said this week in Joburg where he was promoting his book, Lore of Nutrition.
“The current vice president of the SA Medical Association tweeted that I was a disgrace to the medical profession before the case even came up before the HPCSA.”
Noakes spent 35 years at UCT, qualifying as a doctor and then forging an internationally acclaimed career as a sports scientist and nutritionist.
“I trained hundreds of students and raised buckets of money for the university. UCT played on that and me, but once I decided I didn’t like my diet, they turned on me.”
The unkindest cut of all was the letter written by four UCT professors to the Cape Times denouncing him.
“UCT declared me a rogue scientist, but they never gave any evidence why - that was the worst.”
Ironically, Noakes continues to fund researchers at the university through trusts he set up from the proceeds of his other books exploring diabetes and diabetes reversal.
He’s raised more than R5.5 million in this regard.
“It goes there because those are the right people to fund,” he said, noting that they had developed the skills to research diabetes reversal through testing his theories on the LCHF diet.He refuses to bear grudges, though.
“I just feel sorry for (his accusers). They’re inadequate and will lead incomplete lives. I’m angry with the first panel of the HPCSA with all that wealth of medical and legal knowledge who didn’t stop the process.
“The tragedy is that when you see this, you ask: ‘Where is the medical profession of South Africa if these are the philosophical leaders of the profession and they can’t act ethically?’”
What galls him is that the HPCSA is determined to do it all over again, with an appeal scheduled for next February - four years after that tweet.
He’s determined to fight them every step of the way.
“We’ll go to the High Court if we need to. The problem is the HPCSA appoints the panel; they just need three dubious doctors to convict me. How can I have a fair trial? Every doctor in this country has an opinion on me and three of the five on the panel have to be doctors.”
The hysteria around LCHF diet has been amazing and Noakes has been accused effectively of fake medicine, of endangering gullible people’s lives.
“You know,” said Noakes, “there’s a person called Rita Venter who’s started a Facebook page for the LCHF diet. There are now 1031000 members; they’re growing at 2000 a week. I once asked her if anyone they knew had died.
“She said: ‘Yes, one, last week in a hijack.’”
Noakes is not giving up. He’s determined to evangelise his work through the Eat Better South Africa! Foundation.
He’s been working in poor communities teaching the poorest of the poor how to follow the diet on less than R30 a day.
“Their health improved dramatically. They’d been captured in poverty by their diet.”
The Lore of Nutrition by Tim Noakes and Marika Sboros is published by Penguin at a recommended retail price of R290.