The latest drug scandal in athletics has broken. A leak of data from the IAAF, the athletics world governing body, showed that one third of medals in endurance races at Olympic Games and World Championships over a ten-year period from 2001 to 2012 were won by athletes with suspicious blood readings or by athletes who were likely to have used doping.
There were many responses, from shock and horror to the weaselly hunt for a get-out clause. But what is it like for a clean athlete in the thick of the cheating? Lisa Dobriskey, former 1500m Commonwealth champion and 2009 World silver medallist, training in Arizona for the Rio Olympics, explains to The Mixed Zone exactly how it feels.
I’ve known there were athletes cheating in my races. I’ve known 100 per cent. I didn’t have the documents to prove it but as an athlete you just know. It completely belittles the clean athletes alongside them. It doesn’t matter how fit you are, how hard you’ve trained, the cheats always have an extra gear or that extra bit of endurance you just can’t get cleanly.
But I largely kept quiet. I wanted to protect the integrity of the sport I loved and it’s so difficult to just stand there alone accusing people. People don’t always support you if you say anything. After my race at the London Olympics I put my head above the parapet and said: “I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this but I don’t think I’m playing on a level playing field.” One of the headlines directed against me was: “Sour Grapes!” They added: “She’s trailed in at the back. It’s just bitterness.” That was quite hurtful. It wasn’t that at all. It was just sheer disgust at what had been allowed to happen.
If sport doesn’t have fairness at its heart what does it really mean? I’ve been competing in athletics since I was ten. It’s taught me so much about being a fair loser, respecting people and being a gracious winner. Athletes who cheat by taking drugs are destroying all of that.
It’s deception of the crowd as well. For all the people who have paid for their tickets to go and watch, it’s no less than fraud really. It goes against all the values they have come to see on display.
I was really gutted to finish fourth in Beijing. To miss out on an Olympic medal, something that changes an athlete’s life forever, was a disappointment it took me a very, very long time to get over it. But then to discover that one of the athletes who beat me that day, who had the honour of an Olympic medal hung round her neck, was subsequently banned as a drug cheat, that was a really bitter pill to swallow.
Personally, it’s just a horrible feeling. It’s horrible any time you’ve been cheated, whether it’s just a board game or a hand of poker. But when it’s the Olympics or World Championships, when it’s your livelihood, your dream, when you go through so much, work so hard, endure so many injuries just to get on the track, you deserve to be in a fair fight.
The feelings of frustration and anger are profound. But you can’t let it eat you up and make you really bitter because then you’d abandon the sport altogether. You have to believe in the system and hope cheats will be caught. You have to hope justice will be done. But that hope has been severely damaged by these revelations.
On a couple of occasions in the past I’ve been so convinced that something suspect is going on I have contacted the IAAF myself. And they were very good. They asked me if I had any solid evidence and said: “We’ll follow it up.”
Well, we now know how. They haven’t done anything. I just can’t really believe it to be honest. It’s frightening. I desperately want to protect the sport I love. I’m an athlete, I love running, I want to compete in Rio. But the scale of these allegations is really damaging to it.
What I’d like to see happen is names named. If these allegations are converted into fact – and I was told that there is only a one-in-100,000 chance of these blood readings being “normal” – whoever was responsible for the cover-up should be exposed. People in authority, even governments, protect their own reputation but who’s protecting the clean athletes? Making sure than competition is fair?
We’re trying to send out a positive image of our sport, persuade people to buy tickets to watch us, get sponsors investing in us, but if it’s partly based on a fraud, who wins? It’s certainly not those athletes training hard every single day to be a clean athlete. They are the ones losing out.
I know some people will say: well, just open the floodgates. Take whatever you like. But that’s incredibly dangerous for the health of athletes and terrible for the ethics of the sport. The experts who looked into the data said that some athletes should have been in hospital not running round a track, because the apparent blood-boosting they had undergone risked heart attack or a stroke. That’s scary. If an athlete suffers irreversible damage to their health, it’s a heavy, heavy price to pay.
My message to Seb Coe and Sergei Bubka, both in the running to lead the IAAF when the votes are cast this month, is simply this: transparency and honesty are vital. Protect the sport, not an organisation. Make it something we’d all be proud to have our children involved with.
As for me, I’m still intent on Rio. I had a hip operation in April and fingers crossed for a solid year’s build-up out in Arizona at the World Athletics Centre where my husband, Ricky, is now the endurance coach. As I lost my funding in Britain we had to sell our house to go and train there. That’s my base now and my goal is to make it to the start-line of the 2016 Olympic 1500m. I don’t know if it will be a clean race. I just really, really hope so.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
This article was written by Lisa Dobriskey.
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