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Doping: athletes speaking out

People have been asking me why clean athletes don’t speak out more, in light of the appalling news about doping, corruption, cover-ups etc in athletics. These are my thoughts on this question from my own experience and observations. Other athletes may have different views.

1. You’re in the sport to do the sport. Athletes go into elite athletics because they love doing the sport, have dreams, want to fulfil their potential, maybe have talent, want to do something terrific with their lives. They don’t go into it to hassle corrupt, greedy, dishonest people who aren’t doing their jobs properly. If the authorities in athletics aren’t doing their jobs properly, then it is the job of the Police and law-enforcement agencies to go after them. We shouldn’t have to speak out!

2. You don’t want to jeopardise your chances. Athletes work hard every single day (as do the support team who help them). All that effort goes into a few seconds, minutes or hours of competition on a few days per year, depending on your event. If you screw up, that’s it. You’ve blown it. Game over. So you have to reduce or eliminate from your life, everything that might prevent you from being your absolute best – nights out drinking with your mates, going to crowded places where you might catch a cold, activities in which you might get injured, etc. Getting drawn into a controversial media storm by speaking out, and/or acquiring a reputation as a boat-rocking trouble-maker are unlikely to help you to be your very best. And remember that with doping, the level of competition and qualification standards, which are based on world rankings, may be higher than otherwise, so you have to work even harder. Do you want to risk throwing all that away? No.

3. You don’t want to give people a reason to reject you. Selection criteria for major championships might include “discretion”. You don’t want to give anyone a reason not to select you. Similarly, for many athletes their sport is their living. So attracting sponsorship contracts is important and may be the difference between being able to afford to be an athlete, and having to quit. Are sponsors going to want you if you speak out and cause controversy? It’s simpler to keep your head down and work hard.

4. People don’t listen. I have tried to convince many people that doping, especially amongst Russians and East Europeans, is rife in the women’s marathon. This is based on my own personal experience. There are VERY few people who have accepted my arguments. Most say (or look like they are thinking) it’s sour grapes, how can you be sure – they haven’t been caught, you’re just envious because you didn’t win, you’re just bitter etc. Also, athletes HAVE spoken out eg Lisa Dobriskey, Kelly Holmes – and what difference did it make? Unless Hajo Seppelt and the Stepanovs had brought evidence into the open, athletics would be cheerfully continuing as it was. The more times an athlete speaking out is not listened to, the more they will lose confidence, courage, and the motivation to continue speaking out. Eventually they will fall silent. People who don’t listen may not be doing so maliciously, it may be because they don’t understand the sport enough to spot doping, so they accept competition results at face value.

5. Athletes have little choice where they compete. If you want to reach the pinnacle of your sport, that generally means the Olympics and World Championships. You know you’ll be up against dopers, but what else can you do? There is no parallel universe of guaranteed-clean Olympics and WC that you can shoot for. So you just have to get on with it, do your absolute best, and hope that’s enough to beat the dopers.

6. Most athletes are young. Young people haven’t had the years of life experience to see all the wrongdoing that goes on in the world. Some will figure it out quickly, others won’t. And most, if not all, as a young person should, will put their TRUST in the athletics authorities to provide clean, open & honest sport. You don’t go into a sport thinking it’s going to be corrupt and full of cheats. In my first race against blatant dopers (2006 European 10,000m), I finished thinking “What? Wait a minute, how did that happen, are you kidding me?” When I asked other athletes about this, I was met with derision – “Wake up, Mara, what planet are you on? Of course it’s bulls**t” etc. That made me wise up and think more sceptically.

7. Perhaps athletes are scared of speaking out or are being silenced. On at least two occasions, I have been warned against speaking out on doping by people who are heavily involved in athletics.

8. What difference will it make? Some athletes may want to speak out, but may be thinking “What difference will it make? What’s the point?” If all around you, you see signs of doping, and yet the sport carries on cheerfully as if nothing’s wrong, it makes you wonder how any athlete can make a difference.

9. Control the controllables. There are many things, doping aside, that can stop an athlete from being their very best – nerves, illnesses, injuries, having to work to earn money, the weather, facilities etc. The best thing an athlete can do is focus on what they can control, and do those things to their very best ability, and ignore the rest. If others are going to dope, enable doping, look the other way etc, then that’s their problem. The clean athlete needs to focus on themselves and make the best of that.

10. You need to be brave, have courage, and be sure of your facts to speak out. Ultimately everything boils down to evidence. Without it, everything that athletes who speak out say can be dismissed. That means secretly recording conversations, getting your hands on documents, taking photographs of anything suspicious etc. This is the work of the Police, not elite athletes!! Look at the Stepanovs – who would envy them living in hiding? Hajo Seppelt – threatened with legal action by the IAAF? The Stepanovs and Seppelt have done a great service to athletics through their courage.

I hope this gives an insight into why elite athletes are not speaking out more. I may have painted a picture of athletes being spineless – this is definitely not the case. I am now retired so it is easier for me to speak my mind without fear.


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