Olympic javelin thrower Goldie Sayers begins her first column exclusive to The Mixed Zone with a broadside at the Russian athletes who have denied her – and countless other ‘clean’ competitors – of their just rewards. Sayers has belatedly been awarded the bronze medal from the Beijing Games after Mariya Abakumova was stripped of her silver medal for doping offences. It goes some way to making up for the disappointment at the time, she says
So the IAAF have upheld their ban on Russian athletes for the systematic doping that’s been endemic in that country for decades, and it means they won’t be going to the Olympic Games. Good. Not so good is the IOC’s decision to allow those Russian athletes who can prove they are ‘clean’ to compete under a neutral flag.
How does that work? I don’t know how a Russian athlete can prove they’re clean, especially if they’ve been living and working and training in Russia. I think that loophole fits very few, but there will be a lot of Russian athletes appealing and saying the ban is against their human rights. But they need to air their grievances at the Russian Athletics Federation who failed them, not the rest of us.
Yelena Isinbayeva, the pole-vault record-holder, is one of those who has protested. I’d say to her: it’s been against the human rights of all the clean athletes down the years who have been cheated out of medals by Russian dopers.
It doesn’t feel very nice, does it?
I’ve been a senior British international since 2003 and for most of it I tried deliberately to remain as naive as possible about doping. I knew the Russian thrower Mariya Abakumova, the silver medalist at Beijing when I finished fourth, was cheating.
Competing against someone every year, you can tell by their physical appearance. In just five months over the winter of 2006-07 she bulked up dramatically. The muscle growth was extraordinary and she was throwing well, too. But as I didn’t want those thoughts to affect my performance, I took mental refuge in the British legal line of “innocent until proven guilty”.
But as you get older you see more and more. It’s been hard not to get cynical and bitter, to be completely honest. Competing time after time against athletes whose cheating robs you of your ability to know how good you really are – that’s the hardest thing. For people who’ve retired now, they will never know what they truly achieved.
That’s what drug cheats steal. They’re not just cheats. They’re thieves. It’s fraud. They deserve to be punished.
In my case, in a way, I’m lucky. Abakumova was implicated in doping after the re-testing of her 2008 urine sample earlier this year and I’ve apparently been upgraded to Olympic bronze. There are rumours about a medal ceremony in Rio, but I haven’t heard anything from the IOC. It obviously goes some way towards making up for the disappointment at the time, but you’ve forever missed that moment with friends, family, and the coaches who helped you. At least it’s better than the experience of American shot-putter, Adam Nelson, who received his belated 2004 Olympic medal outside the McDonald’s outlet at Atlanta Airport.
People ask me why I didn’t do or say anything at the time. But 10 years ago athletes felt completely powerless. We were completely powerless. The authorities were doing nothing. I had to be really careful in the heat of the moment after that javelin final not to say: “I think I’ve just been beaten by a drug cheat.” I remember having to gather myself and say instead: “It’s a bit of a surprise for somebody to throw over 70 metres when they came in to the competition with a personal best of 65 metres.”
It was not my job as an athlete to police the sport. You’d inevitably become a spokesperson and then it would become a very difficult distraction. You saw what happened to Lisa Dobriskey at London 2012 when she said she didn’t feel like she was competing on a level playing field. And she was completely right. The Turkish athlete, Asti Cakir Alptekin, was later stripped of the gold medal, but not before Lisa had been vilified as a sore loser.
I’ve had a challenging career. I’ve been through eight operations and endured my fair share of struggles just to get on the start-line. Had I retired either this year or next without an Olympic medal to show for it, I’d have been in danger of thinking that in a way it had been a waste of time. I don’t mean that I haven’t loved being an athlete. I do. I’m set on qualifying for Rio as much as I ever did Athens, Beijing and London.
But this potential medal, the bronze from Beijing, is a vindication of 20 years of dedicating your life to your craft. I don’t feel huge anger towards Abakumova herself. I don’t think she had any choice in the matter at all. I think it’s completely in-built into their psyche. Win at all costs.
For years no one wanted to stir up the hornets’ nest. So I’m grateful to the journalists for their unending investigations. At least now the authorities have to respond. Previously they were not serving the clean athletes. That’s what has been most galling. Corruption at the top of our sport was effectively changing the results on the field of play. Now the IAAF, under intense scrutiny, have made a good decision to maintain the Russian ban for Rio.
If I qualify for Rio later this month – I’ve got to throw 62 metres which I’ve done pretty much every year for the last 12 years – I may be on the most level playing field I’ve ever known. It’s just sad it’s taken four Olympics to get there. And there’s still a lot more work to do to fight doping.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Goldie Sayers, is a three-time Olympian, World and European Championship finalist and UK Javelin Champion for the past ten years. Goldie’s latest articles