Is it time for athletes to become activists?

The striking thing about the scandal that has engulfed athletics is the modest response of the clean athletes. The decent souls who spurned steroids, souped-up blood and a life of twisted chicanery to compete at huge disadvantage against fellow athletes and – as it turns out – the highest authorities in their sport.

Now we know the scale of the deceit. The President of the IAAF has been arrested. His organisation – the so-called governing body of athletics – stands accused by the anti-doping authority Wada of harbouring a bribery and extortion racket which allowed guilty athletes to get away with doping in return for princely sums of money. The Russians were doping systematically. The Kenyans are under scrutiny. The likelihood is that medals have been awarded routinely to cynically and chemically enhanced creatures from myriad countries at the expense of the merely human.

Little did clean athletes know the extent to which they were running against a mafia. And now the newly-elected President, Sebastian Coe, is being accused of incompetency or corruption, having worked alongside the allegedly grotesque regime for seven years as vice president. He disclaims all knowledge. There is no evidence that he is lying. Perhaps, like another former British hero and lord, he simply held the telescope up to his blind eye.

In that case, you might expect the athletes who have been robbed of glory, medals, money, sponsorship, self-esteem and pride to be marching on the IAAF headquarters in Monaco to demand massively overdue reparation. They are not. Partly because with minus funding, in many cases, they can’t afford the air fare. And partly, shamefully, because their experience is to put up and shut up.

For years the former Commonwealth 1500 metres champion and world silver medalist, Lisa Dobriskey, has lived with the legacy of devastating personal Olympic “failure”.

“Beijing,” she says, “took me a very long time to get over. All I could think of was how close I had come to a medal. I considered myself a total failure for a long time, I really beat myself up about it. I have relived that race thousands of times. It was my first global final. I’d just missed out on a spot in the World Championships final the year before by one place. Had that final not been littered with drugs cheats I would have had the opportunity to experience it and learn. This would have undoubtedly helped me in Beijing. Whenever I think about Beijing I just get a horrible sinking feeling. It could have been the happiest moment in my life, but instead it’s one full of regret and sadness.”

That Beijing final, by the way, was won by a Kenyan with the other medals going to two Ukrainians, one of whom received a two-year ban in 2012 after testing positive for testosterone. Dobriskey came fourth.

Jo Pavey’s coach, and husband, Gavin – in the light of recent revelations – reckons his wife might have a further six major medals to add to the European title she won so memorably at the age of 40 last year, had the sport not been riddled with corruption.

Indeed, even the IAAF admits she was owed a bronze for the 10,000 metres at the 2007 World Championships in Osaka when she finished agonisingly fourth and suffered accordingly. It was announced this year that reanalysis of the frozen sample taken from the silver medalist, Turkey’s Elvan Abeylegesse, had proved positive for a controlled substance and that the offender would be stripped of the place retrospectively.

So that’s good. No glory. No podium. No medal ceremony. No kudos. No funding. Just a medal in the post – and even that hasn’t arrived yet – and the best wishes of the organisation that is accused of strangling her honest endeavours to enrich individuals at the helm.

“I remember lying on the track at the end just feeling so disappointed and that I’d let my friends and family down,” said Pavey. “I was in a medal position and I just couldn’t hold it to the line. It was so close. And when it was over I lay there thinking, ‘Oh, that was probably my opportunity for a medal – gone!’

“If I’d won that medal it would have made me really happy at that moment in my career. And for the rest of my career I would have felt a bit of peace of mind that I’d achieved it. It would have been my first medal at world level. I wouldn’t have felt that I’d failed. It’s missing that moment on the podium. You can never get it back.

“You work so hard day in day out, then years later you find you should have won a medal. But the moment’s gone.”

This heartfelt reaction is entirely understandable, but they are among numerous others who simply could not, perhaps dared not, speak out explicitly. They hadn’t proof, except for gut feelings and the evidence of their own eyes. And, crucially, they hadn’t the full scale backing from a complex web of interrelated authorities whose politicking interests were not always served by the truth. When you have Wada alleging that agents from FSB, the Russian internal intelligence agency, carried out surveillance of anti-doping work, including during the Sochi Olympics, the staggering scale of top-down decadence is revealed.

“It’s incredibly sad that for so long this has been going on. I can’t quite comprehend it,” said Dobriskey, currently training in Arizona, having lost her funding after London 2012 where, incidentally, the winner of the 1500 metres was Asli Cakir Alptekin of Turkey, a known and convicted drug cheat who is currently serving an eight-year ban.

“To witness Cakir Alptekin win an Olympic title when they knew she was cheating was heartbreaking.

“Even if people go to jail for criminality it’s not recompense to us. It’s all too little too late. There are so many layers of people who have been affected. Medals, money, places in finals, even places on teams because the qualifying standards have been skewed due to times run by cheats. It goes so deep and so far back. Then there’s the future. I’m incredibly proud to be an athlete but nobody wants to ask me about that. All people want to ask about is my opinion on drugs and cheats. It’s so sad.”

So is it time that the clean athletes became activists to save their sport?

No one else has ever championed their cause. They’ve been on their own as far back as the 1970s when the East Germans efficiently doped a generation as a state-run experiment on humans for the greater glory a nation. A gruesome process in which other countries and individuals rushed to join, with coaches, doctors and politicians effectively becoming drug-pushers to unknowing teenage children.

It has always been a nonsense that athletes were deemed 100 per cent responsible for doping. Really? The coach wasn’t sometimes in it up his or her eyeballs? The national body suspected nothing? The international governance wasn’t complicit? Politicians didn’t demand shiny medals to burnish their own reputations?

Only athletes speaking out with conviction can change all this. But it’s hard. Activist athletes may naturally fear that governing bodies might earmark them “troublemakers”. It might impinge on their selection, funding, access to coaching. But if Coe is to make good his promise that the cheats will be routed then he will support them to the hilt. He’ll have to. Otherwise all the fine words expended as the full horror of scandal is exposed will be exposed as political posturing.

He clings tenaciously to his contract with Nike. Perhaps he should listen to how that makes athletes feel. “It’s not right,” Dobriskey, echoing the thoughts of Jade Johnson, the former British long jumper, who admitted she only felt able to speak out because she was now retired. Johnson called it “a conflict of interest” and Dobriskey continued: “Someone in this position should be totally impartial. The fact that Seb Coe insists on keeping this contract highlights to me that he is motivated by money and we’ve seen how dangerous that could be – especially in a position of power. If you speak to top-level athletes, money isn’t what motivates them. It’s the love and passion for their sport. We make huge sacrifices to do what we love. This should apply to Seb Coe.”

Careers have been wrecked by cheats. Lives viciously and knowingly altered. If the IAAF now mean business – good, clean, transformative business – it will trawl through the record books as a genuine act of mea culpa, alter results, aid the prosecution of the villains and offer real, solid, compensation – money and sincere apology – to the athletes it robbed of their “moment”.

How can they do any less?

How does retired British runner Hayley Tullett feel today remembering the 1500 metres bronze she won in Paris at the World Championships in 2003 … behind a Russian banned in October 2008 for manipulating samples and a Turkish athlete banned for life in 2009 for a second doping offence?

Dobriskey sums it up. “It’s important to realise that these events are reflective of the IAAF as an organisation not the sport as a whole. The sport itself is full of clean, dedicated athletes who are good, honest and hardworking people. Every day when training here at Altis in Phoenix I am surrounded by fellow athletes who give their all, win and lose graciously and are fantastic role models.

“We cannot allow greed, money and power to destroy the simplicity and beauty of athletics.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press. Sue’s latest articles

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