I love running. But we need to talk about doping.
Above you saw a brief video of my friend Wesley Korir having a chat with Al Jazeera TV. I love Wes and I love what he is saying here. Basically we want to outlaw it. Anyone who is caught should go to jail. That Kenya needs to protect it’s reputation by staying clean. But how do you catch the perpetrators? How many are out there? And if drugs are easily available over the counter, how many runners aren’t as concerned as our buddy Boaz Kiplagat as to the ethical dilemma and are willing to take this ‘shortcut’? This video raises as many questions as it answers… let’s maybe see if we can get to the bottom of some of them.
The president of the IAAF, Lamine Diack, in this interview with the BBC, states that he is “convinced that the majority of our athletes are clean”. He says he is shocked at the claim by former Russian discus thrower Yevgeniya Pecherina in a recent documentary made for German broadcaster ‘Das Erste’ that “most, the majority, 99%” of Russian athletes use banned substances. That he is absolutely sure that the ‘majority’ of athletes are clean. But he then goes on to speak of organised cheating, which he doesn’t refute exists. And when pushed on this he makes a worrying statement; “our athletes are 90%-95% clean”. So is this a contradiction? Or are we quibbling over 4%-9% of competitors? And is this important?
What if 1 of 10 athletes on the start line are using a performance enhancing drug? In a sport where minutes, seconds, milliseconds can mean the difference between being on the podium… or not. Between a sponsorship deal… or not. Between making an Olympic, World Championship or National team… or not. Let’s look at some facts Monsieur Diack. Below are the rules. The rules readily accessible on the IAAF website. There are 10 of them. All are written over the course of two pages of the IAAF Anti-Doping & Medical code.
2) The following constitute anti-doping rule violations:
(a) Presence of a Prohibited Substance or its Metabolites or Markers in an Athlete’s Sample
(b) Use or Attempted Use by an Athlete of a Prohibited Substance or a Prohibited Method
(c) Evading, Refusing or Failing to Submit to Sample Collection
(d) Whereabouts Failures
(e) Tampering or Attempted Tampering with any part of Doping Control
(f) Possession of a Prohibited Substance or Prohibited Method
(g) Trafficking or Attempted Trafficking in any Prohibited Substance or Prohibited Method
(h) Administration or Attempted Administration of a Prohibited Substance or a Prohibited Method
(j) Prohibited Association
This is an overview, but they are pretty clear. As is the list explaining what a prohibited substance might be. Fairly self explanatory. So if the list of rules is two pages long, how long is the list of athletes currently suspended from all competitions following an anti-doping violation (as of January 2015)? 26 pages. We’re talking over 300 athletes. And these are just those who have been caught. I don’t know what percentage this constitutes, but clearly athletics is facing a crisis. The reason it bothers me, the reason we should care, is because doping is becoming endemic and the very fabric of the sport is in question here, it’s ideologies. In the same way that cycling has had to weather a storm of irreversible reputational damage as a result of doping, athletics is now encountering the same.
I now question performances of athletes, many of whom I look up to and inspire my own running.
April 2014, the Boston Marathon. I was wowed by Meb Keflezighi’s winning performance. In the same race, Rita Jeptoo (the subject of the above video) broke the course record ahead of Buzunesh Deba (who also came in under the course record) in 2:18:57. She then went on to win Chicago in the same year thus bagging $500,000 to boot by taking top spot in the World Marathon Majors. Both were convincing runs. Too convincing. She subsequently tested positive for EPO, the $500k on ice for now…
September 2014, Diamond League meeting in Brussels. Justin Gatlin wins the 100m in 9.77. He then follows this up an hour later, eyes still bulging, to win the 200m in 19.71. He demolished both fields. You want to be wowed at athletics meetings like the Diamond League, and Gatlin did just that. The problem being though that the guy has a chequered past having previously served a 4yr ban for doping offences…
December 2014, the European Cross Country Championships in Samokov, Bulgaria. I sat gob smacked during the men’s U23 race as three Russian athletes stormed off the front and took a 1,2,3… they obliterated the field. They looked like machines. There was snow and slush underfoot, it was a hard course. The two GB athletes who came in 4 and 5, out of the medals, got nowhere near. It turns out athlete 3, Vladimir Nikitin, had returned from a doping ban but 5 months earlier…
These are races I chose to watch, to be inspired by. But I came away from each wondering if I’d watched three amazing performances or three runs of dubious nature. Looking at the faces of defeated athletes – Buzunesh, Team GB, Tyson Gay (not so much him!) – is difficult, seeing the pain of having prepared mentally, tactically, physically only to be walloped. And you start wondering if you are watching someone at the top of their game or someone in Diack’s 5%-10%… Don’t even get me started on London Marathon winner Liliya Shobukhova paying £350k to Russian Athletic Officials to cover up her own doping scheme. On why Mo Farah is out training in Ethiopia with banned athlete Hamza Driouch (3:50 mile aged 17…). I could go on. But then we’d be here a while. You want some more examples, pick up Athletics Weekly and they do a little column of brief news about various marathon winners an track athletes getting caught. This month, for example, featured Julia Mombi winner of the last Cologne Marathon. It’s not even front page news now.
But it should be. It is a problem. A major one. I run a lot and know that until you reach the top level, it is all about personal bests. It’s about bettering yourself. But the problem here is that when personal bests become competitive, a world lead, might win a race, money, then the sport becomes murkier. And that’s a real shame. That participants feel that they can (or have to) cheat. That they can beat the controls or in some cases, just get caught wait two years and then compete again. It’s disheartening to think that something which can bring so much personal satisfaction can be tainted like that. That I can toe the line of a major marathon with elite athletes is a supreme feeling and fairly unique to the sport. But knowing that I’ve trained and dedicated 16 weeks of my life to be duped from the start by someone who might go on and win dirty?
The good news? Our friend Diack is about to step aside at the IAAF, likely to be succeeded by Sebastian Coe. In his pitch for IAAF presidency, aired over 5 days on running blog letsrun.com, Seb said something I felt was quite simple and yet quite profound. ‘It’s absolutely vital that people believe in our sport’. ‘It’s absolutely vital that people believe in our sport.’ I couldn’t agree more. I don’t want the last 5 years of my running life to be associated with a sport where people have cheated their way to the top. Where we talk to our grandkids about the performances of our athletes in the Olympics, the Boston Marathon, the Diamond League only for them to say ‘yeh sure pops, but everyone was cheating back then, right?’.
So let’s keep it simple. Let’s trust the sport, let’s support it, celebrate it. If anyone wants to ruin that celebration they can leave, go do something else, go buddy up with Lance and do whatever it is he’s got going on these days. But the first step is that we have to accept that it’s happening and talk about it. Whether you finished your last marathon 5 minutes or 5 hours behind the winner doesn’t matter. What does matter is that we want idols, not hate figures. Let’s run hard, run clean and run together. That’d be dope.