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How do you spot signs of doping?

One of the things I find difficult to accept about doping in athletics, as touched on in my last blog, is how people who claim to love the sport appear to be oblivious when they see doped-up performances right under their noses. “How can you be sure? Aren’t athletes innocent until proven guilty? Blah blah blah. So maybe it’s time to learn how to spot signs of doping when you see them. Here is my guide – I hope it’s useful! These are only my views (and focused on endurance running as this is my speciality), and others may see things differently. And let’s remember that the system in place to deter, find and catch dopers is, until proven otherwise by concrete evidence, unfit for purpose due to corruption, extortion and cover-ups. So it’s a good idea to use your own brain power and common sense to figure out what’s really going on. Ready? Here we go!

Guideline 1: When something you see does not make sense, leaves you a bit baffled, or doesn’t quite add up – then that may be a clue that doping is involved. Here are some examples. A hitherto average athlete making a clean, world-class athlete look like Jo Jogger on the last lap of a 10,000m? That’s weird. Several athletes from the same stable running very similar splits in different marathons? That’s weird. The female winner of a major city marathon runs the last split from 40km a lot faster than the men’s winner? That’s weird. So when you see something that leaves you puzzled, don’t doubt your own comprehension abilities, just stop and think what may be the truth about what you are seeing.

Guideline 2: which country is an athlete from? This is important because individual countries are responsible for anti-doping at home and policing their own athletes (on top of this, there is additional testing by the IAAF and others). So, ask yourself - is an athlete from a country which has an appalling record on doping, or from a country with very few, if any, banned athletes, or somewhere in between?

Guideline 3: unlike many Olympic sports, athletics involves the absolute bare minimum of equipment in competition. There isn’t a load of expensive or sophisticated equipment which you can throw money and good scientists at to get a performance advantage. That means it is essentially all about human effort. And the laws of physics on mass, force, distance etc mean that the demands of an event eg hammer or the marathon, require a certain body type and physiology. The higher the level of competition, the more this applies. So, to be a great hammer thrower, you must be tall, strong and powerful. To be a great marathon runner, you must be light and lean. So a 50kg/160cm athlete isn’t going to win the Olympic hammer title. And a 100kg/180cm athlete isn’t going to win the Olympic marathon title. It just doesn’t happen. Occasionally exceptionally talented athletes do appear, and there may be a legitimate reason for their good performances (eg a diminutive thrower makes up for their sub-optimal body type by being brilliant technically), but these are the exception.

Guideline 4: is a lot of money at stake? If you are an Olympic or World Championship medallist, you can expect large appearance fees from future competitions for 4 years (Olympic) or 2 years (WC). So if a hitherto mediochre athlete rocks up at the Olympics and wins a medal, they may be doing it with chemical assistance to earn a good living for the next 4 years.

Guideline 5: who does the athlete hang out with, who is their coach & agent? Is a clean athlete likely to hang out with drug cheats at training camps and competitions? No! If an agent has many busted athletes on his books, is it likely that his current ‘stars’ are clean? No!

Guideline 6: are an athlete’s performances over time and across different events consistent? To reach the pinnacle of athletics clean usually takes many years of hard training (see point 3 above), and typically you see gradual improvement over that time. There may be legitimate reasons why a clean athlete makes a big break-through, eg switching coaches, moving to train with another group, overcoming a long-term injury which was hampering training. But if you see a massive, sudden improvement, then ask yourself why and how. And if an athlete’s performances are very up and down, eg in the Olympics they were totally awesome but otherwise they are fairly average, then ask yourself why? The same applies across different events – is a runner with a 70 minute half-marathon PB likely to run sub-2:20 for the marathon? No! It’s possible if they are an absolute marathon specialist but unlikely.

Guideline 7: what was the athlete’s finish like (in endurance events)? Was it a finish you’d expect after running your guts out for a long time, or did it look more like the athlete has been sitting on a couch drinking Red Bull while the others were running their guts out? Did the athlete look tired, like they were trying hard, like it was tough out there? Or did they look easy, like they weren’t trying to their max effort, like they could have gone much faster? The jaw-dropping finish is an absolute give-away and fans need to be vigilant on this one in particular!

Guideline 8: has the athlete been competing regularly? If you’re an elite athlete, generally you want to be out there competing at the pinnacle of your sport, getting used to competition, sizing up your rivals, doing what you love. So if an athlete has not been competing at all or only in their own country (where this country has a history of doping, and may therefore have no testing/inadequate testing, or may even be helping the athlete to dope), and then this athlete rocks up at the Olympics and thrashes everyone, you should be suspicious.

Guideline 9: does the athlete look like they are training for their particular event, and look fit, in shape, and ready to compete? In endurance events, if an athlete shows up at a race looking overweight, unconditioned, or in any other way like they are not training hard, (or – and I love this one - has been spotted smoking on a training camp!) AND then they produce a great performance, alarm bells should be ringing.

I hope this was useful – print it off, and have a copy in your pocket ready for the next competition you watch !

While we're on the subject of dopng, here is another aspect of the recent scandals that really sticks in the craw. Paul Hayward's article "Crisis of faith will continue as long as governing bodies police themselves" in The Telegraph on 15 Jan had the following line in it: "how can we expect athletes to compete clean when the people running the sport are dirty". This is a very good point - let me explain.

As a clean athlete trying to train and compete honestly, the burden of fulfilling your anti-doping obligations is not insignificant. On the whereabouts system for a start, you have to give one hour, 365 days per year when you will be at a stated venue for testing. If you are not there and the testers show up, you get a black mark – 3 and you get a ban. Athletes often travel a lot and don’t necessarily have routine lives so staying on top of this is time-consuming and easy to forget. If you get stuck in traffic, delayed, plans change, your Mum gets rushed to hospital etc etc, you still have to stay on top of it or you may risk a black mark.

Then there is the medications and supplements issue. You have to be 100% certain that everything that goes into your body is safe ie not prohibited. That means lengthy trawls through every ingredient on the packet checking it on the global drugs database. Not all ingredients will be listed, so then what do you do? Write to the manufacturer? Take your official nutritionist’s word that it’s safe? For supplements, which are not strictly regulated, you have to satisfy yourself that the manufacturer is not some cowboy outfit and that it won’t be contaminated. To be honest, it’s Russian roulette.

Then there’s the education – reading and staying on top of everything, updates to the WADA Code, changes in testing procedures, changes in how to check stuff, the TUE process, etc etc etc.

And on it goes. All this takes time, effort, brain power and energy which are all in short supply when you are training very hard. But you have to do it – there’s no choice – it’s part of your job, and as a clean & honest athlete trying to do the right thing, you do it.

And do you know what? While you are doing all these things and trying to be a good and honest athlete, the people who are supposed to be providing a clean sport and their buddies are engaging in corruption, extortion, cover-ups, shaking down athletes, bribery, enabling doping, looking the other way, not smelling all the rot around them, and other very serious misdemeanours etc etc etc. WTF???!!!!


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