Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Doping in athletics breaks my heart, but ignoring doping damages it beyond repair

Recently, when people I’ve met through sport ask me what sport I used to compete in – a piercing dagger through the sporting heart of someone who still trains six times a week – I feel that they look at me disdainfully when athletics is my reply. One minute, in their mind, I’m a past sportsperson, a has-been, the next I’m an athlete in that filthy sport of track and field.

Ouch! The knockout blow!

But I can’t complain. I’ve long found it difficult to take certain sports seriously. As soon as someone tells me they’re a cyclist, or a weightlifter, or an MMA fighter, I become sceptical. I find it difficult to believe that there is a clean professional cyclist out there, that the gigantism change in the physique of rugby players in the professional era is all down to doing weights and eating protein, and that rowing, one of the hardest sports out there, is as clean as it’s made out to be.

In truth, I don't take track and field performances all that seriously myself. I watched very little of the athletics in Rio, and celebrated even less of it, choosing instead to spend the summer following domestic athletics action. And running a few races myself.

And when I see a relatively unknown distance runner, who lives in Spain and is engaged to a pro cyclist, knocking 83 seconds off her 10km personal best and in doing so qualifying for the Olympics, I find it difficult to believe.

And that is not her fault (presuming, as we should do, that she is innocent of any wrongdoing).

Nor is it mine.

This is what decades of doping, deceit and denial has done to our sport.

Russian scapegoats

Fortunately for Seb Coe, the IAAF, WADA, and all those who wish to portray the image that they are doing something about it, Russia’s luck finally ran out. The fact that harsh sanctions came seven years after seven Russian female athletes were suspended for allegedly switching their urine samples (out-of-competition samples collected in May 2007 did not match those provided by the same athletes at the World Championships in Osaka later that summer, something which wouldn’t have been able to happen under normal testing procedures) – indicates just how reluctant the authorities are to nip a problem in the bud.

While those watching the sport with open eyes were shouting ‘dirty cheating Russians’ at the TV, bribes were lining the pockets of those whose very job it was to run the sport, and delaying any serious action.

Along comes Seb Coe and, conveniently for him, but unfortunately almost a decade too late for the sport, it’s finally politically convenient to do something about the Russians.

Meanwhile, knowledgeable fans continue to shout ‘dirty rotten cheats’ at the TV, this time at the Turks, the Kenyans, the Jamaicans, the Ukrainians…

But it’s all ok. The Russians are not competing. And Seb Coe is cleaning up the sport.

That’s the same Seb Coe that in August 2015, before the true extent of Russian doping became public and just before he was elected as IAAF President, stated – in response to leaked blood data - that “The idea that my sport sat there either covering up wrongdoing or just being incompetent could not be wider of the mark.”

But that’s exactly what the sport has been doing for decades.

“We cannot be portrayed as a sport that is in any way dragging our heels,” added Coe.

But dragging their heels, they continue to do.

When will we finally admit that things are bad?

Paul McNamara, recently appointed as the new High Performance Director of Athletics Ireland, stated in an interview with Newstalk earlier this month that he thinks “our sport is cleaner than it has ever been before.”

Of course he did. That's what we're always being told. That’s the party line. London, too, was the cleanest Olympics ever. And look how that turned out!

In relation to the evolution of men’s 5000m and 10000m times, McNamara said "Arguably one could pick a date in 1995 that started the beginning of the EPO boom…. It changed the landscape and those performances skyrocketed for approximately 10 years to unfathomable levels. It’s dropped off drastically since. There’s an obvious reason for that.”

McNamara was, to be fair, arguing that it is again realistic for young Irish athletes to target success at a world level, which is, at the end of the day, his job. We’ll conveniently ignore our own doping record, that a number of our racewalkers continue to train in Spain with a convicted drug cheat, and the fact that some of our most successful distance athletes achieved their success right in the middle of that 10 year period.

But most importantly, we’ll ignore the fact that those comments came just a few days after a pair of Kenya females went through the first 10k of a half marathon in a mind-blowing 30:02 minutes - a new world record for the distance – before one of them brought the world record for the 21.1km distance under 65 minutes for the first time (and ironically made Radcliffe’s world marathon mark look much less of an outlier).

The women’s 10,000m final in Rio made the storylines of a whole range of Disney movies positively plausible by comparison. The recent World Cross Country Championships – while entertaining, engaging and inspiring as a spectacle – were preposterous on a performance level. The world records of those suspicious Chinese athletes continue to fall. And Gulnara Galkina’s untouchable world steeplechase record was finally smashed last summer, by a far inferior technician.

And that’s without the dirty cheating Russians.

The 1990s may well have been the time for EPO fuelled records on the men’s side, but we can hardly put the recent evolution of records on the women’s side purely down to improved training practices and increased opportunities for females.

The Ben Johnson effect

I’m far too young to remember Ben Johnson running in Seoul. But I am old enough to have watched the footage several times since. And I know that observers back then wouldn’t have needed a positive test result to know that he was drugged up to the eyeballs. But that’s easy to say in hindsight.

How many Ben Johnson-esque performances have I witnessed since? How many world records and Olympic wins will I look back on in 10 or 20 years’ time and say, “Why, yes, of course she was doping; anyone could see that”? How many of today’s too-good-to-be-true performances will, down the road, be just that?

And, of course, Ben Johnson wasn’t the only athlete cheating in that 100m final in 1988. He was just the one they most wanted to catch. He was the Russia of his day. Catch him and it looked like they cared about keeping the sport clean.

Can we believe any of what we see?

Are there any clean athletes out there?  Yes, of course there are. I am one. And while I realise that my achievements barely register as performances, I know that there are athletes who work harder, are far more talented and have better race heads than I do, so I know that there are athletes at a higher level than me training and competing clean. Of that I am sure.

But it’s impossible to say exactly what is clean and what isn’t. I’ve heard it argued that Linford Christie’s athletes are definitely clean, that such-and-such is too nice to dope, and that thing-a-me-bob was an outstanding junior and junior athletes just don’t dope. And all this while steroid use among the gym going public is at epidemic levels, EPO is freely available on the internet and amateur athletes, with nothing significant to gain are being caught by the apparently underfunded anti-doping authorities.

It’s dangerous to tar all athletes from a certain country, training set-up or sport with the one brush – I’d hate for my performances, no matter how menial, to be judged by the actions and hypocrisy of my fellow countrymen.

And we’ll probably never know just how many top athletes are doping.

But, what we do know is that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is!

It would be nice if those in charge of the sport finally acknowledged that.


  1. Great piece. However, we should also be careful not to make doping an excuse for not winning races and running good times. An athlete may finish 2nd in a race, and say he suspects the winner doped. Or one may run 60 minutes in half marathon then declare anyone who runs 59 minutes is a cheat.
    On the other hand, I am not saying we should not be suspicious of some performances and we should always strive to get to the truth.

  2. That's a really good point. I don't think we could (or should) reach a point where we say that there's a cut off for what is a clean performance and that faster than that can't be clean. But also, we shouldn't watch performances that are way beyond believeable and not question them just because the athlete who's achieved them is British, or was a talented junior, or is good for the sport.