When I first started this blog, some twenty months ago, I was advised to be careful. It can sometimes be dangerous voicing opinions in public and the repercussions of doing so, can follow an unpredictable route. However, after watching the BBC documentary last week with regards alleged doping within the Nike Salazar camp, the topic of this month’s blog became obvious. The term ‘drug cheat’ has sadly become commonplace in the world of athletics. Rarely, can you watch an event containing world class opposition, where at least one of the competitors has not fallen foul of drug testing laws. What the past number of months have proved is that no country is immune. Jamaica, America, Kenya, Russia. Even my very own Ireland has been implicated. As long as there are winners and losers, there will always be cheaters. There will always be those looking for a shortcut to glory. Somewhere along the line, they have forgotten what they are really running for and the real race in which they are competing.
Amongst many of my fellow athletes, suspicion is rife. Rumours and hearsay are commonplace. Where is the point that you stop believing an athlete is pushing themselves to their limits and start questioning how they have managed to adjust those very limitations? One of my favourite films is ‘Without Limits’, the story documenting the life, and untimely death, of the American running legend and Nike’s first athlete, Steve Prefontaine. Nowadays, the title appears somewhat ironic. The fact is that, with the advancement of medical technology, we are indeed capable of breaking our natural ‘limits’. There is no doubt I could train harder, recover quicker and run faster if I took the right combination of drugs, just as anyone could. What then stops an athlete from cheating? The risk of recrimination if they get caught? A higher moral code? Or maybe just simply, that they want to see how far they and they alone can push themselves.
To me, running is quite simple. An athletics race is a competition to see who is the fastest at covering a set course. It is governed by strict rules. You cannot jump in a car and drive to the finish line. You cannot jump on a bike and cycle to the finish line. And you cannot take certain drugs in order to produce a physiologically enhanced body. There is no difference in injecting yourself full of performance enhancing medications, than jumping in a car at the start line and speeding away to the finish. At least if you had a car everyone could see you giving all the clean athletes the middle finger while you do it. In addition, recent research is pointing towards the fact that the benefits of these medications can last in the body for years. Ok, you might not be jumping in a Ferrari at the start line like you once were, but even a simple Ford Focus would still create an unfair advantage. Where then is the deterrent that life bans might possibly bring? In my experience, there was a consensus that two year bans were a joke. Four year bans, while obviously better, are still a joke. Is missing one Olympic cycle worth the risk for the possible years and years of benefits that you might be able to claim afterwards? And that is provided that you get caught in the first place. Lance Armstrong proved that not failing a drug’s test does not necessarily mean you are a clean athlete, a fact seemingly verified by the documentary last week. I imagine there are ways to ‘microdose’ or consume newly manufactured drugs that no test yet exists for. Such is the problem facing the anti-doping agency today. I dare not investigate deeper into this dark world of athletics, as I would likely become more cynical and saddened that this sport that I love is being corrupted in such a way.
Athletes should be heralded as role models for the young. The sport teaches the virtues of discipline, dedication, perseverance and hard work, amongst many others. Cheating undoes all of that. Letting convicted drug cheats compete as if nothing has happened, undoes all of that. If cheats could prove that they are back to their ‘normal’ default physiological setting then perhaps, at a stretch, they might have a valid case to be heard. However, with the evidence pointing towards the fact that this is not what occurs, letting these cheats still compete means that the race is not a level playing field. It makes a mockery of the sport. I wish it could be made compulsory that every convicted cheat would have to have ‘DRUG CHEAT’ printed next to their name every time it appeared on television or in the paper. Every time the commentator said their name, they would be legally required to precede their name with the words ‘drug cheat’. These cheating athletes are in a different race, a race with only one competitor – themselves. And sad though it is, for as long as they live, they will forever more always be in a race with only themselves. The level playing field has gone. They can no longer claim to have beaten another competitor. They can no longer claim to have run quicker times. Because in truth, they are no longer themselves.
So what can be done? Realistically, what can be done? Cheating is sadly always going to occur, no matter what the sport. A failed drugs test is no proof of innocence. The drug manufacturers and involved doctors are always not just one step ahead of the testers, but most likely two, three or four steps. Last Monday night, I received a knock on my door, it was the drug testers. It is a usual occurrence. I believe I have been tested sixty one times in total, surprisingly high given my first major championship was only two years ago and I am not an athlete even good enough for funding. It would be interesting to see how many times those funded athletes have been tested, they must have no blood left in them by now. At least Ireland is seemingly trying to catch cheaters. I was describing to a friend how it is up to each individual country to decide which of their athletes to test and when. After a moment of confusion she replied, ‘But isn’t it in the country’s interests not to find the cheaters?’. And right there is one of the main problems. A centralised anti-doping testing agency would go a long way in catching more cheats. Sadly however, I don’t see it happening anytime soon. I could keep on grumbling about drug cheats, but quite honestly, I don’t think they even deserve the time that I have taken to write this. So until next time, be true to yourself. Push yourself as hard as you can, and when you think you have reached your limit, think of a drug cheat, and use that anger to push you just that little bit further.