Starting in January 2018, Team New Balance Manchester’s Andrew Heyes was appointed to become a member of the UKAD athlete committee chaired by Sarah Winckless MBE. The committee aims to engage with athletes across all sports and athletes to provide feedback on UKAD programmes and wider views on doping in sport. This is in addition to Andrew’s position as an athlete representative on the British Athletics Clean Sport committee while studying for his PhD in sport psychology and performance enhancing drug use.
It seems that barely a week passes by without some form of doping story hitting the mainstream press. Just this week we’ve heard that the Whereabouts system has been ruled legal by the European Court of Human Rights, Thirty-six Russian athletes withdraw from regional event after a surprise visit by drug testers, and Joseph Parker apologising to Anthony Joshua for suggesting he abused steroids. That’s all without even touching on the simmering situation of Chris Froome and salbutamol.
For many the constant stories, accusations, and personal opinions continue to chip away at our faith in clean and honest competition. And it is pretty much guaranteed that at some point a conversation on distance running (or any sport for that matter) will end up touching on athletes’ use of performance enhancing drugs. It has become difficult to not view some of the more extraordinary performances with at least some cynicism. This is the world I find myself in. Aside from my privileged position as a member of Team New Balance Manchester I am also studying for a PhD in the use of performance enhancing drugs. Or to be more specific, the psycho-social factors that facilitate the use of performance enhancing drugs in sport, exercise, and education (yes students’ can and do ‘dope’ for exams and essays).
The State of the Sport, the Cynic and the Barriers
I’ll be completely honest, I’ve become more than a little skeptical of many top performances. One just has to look at the European all time lists in the distance events to see names of dopers, suspected dopers and those who, even without an evident fire, have an awful lot of smoke swirling round them. I believe my cynicism has developed as result of a far too naïve view of elite sport growing up. Festina, Operación Puerto, and EPO were barely on my radar as I was just wide eyed following any sport simply for the love of competition. It wasn’t until the 2010 European Championships in Barcelona that I first realised the damage doping can cause. In the championships Hallamshire athlete Hatti Archer, who I had grown up watching train down at Woodburn road on many a rainy Tuesday night, smashed her PB and had the performance of her lifetime to finish 4th. 4th in a finishing list that looked like this:
- 1st Yuliya Zaripova Russia Banned for doping offences in 2015
- 2nd Marta Domínguez Spain Banned for doping offences in 2015
- 3rd Lyubov Kharlamova Russia Banned for doping offences in 2006 & 2017
- 4th Hatti Dean Great Britain
Currently Hatti is waiting for an upgrade to the vacant silver medal as Zaripova’s ban was backdated to June 2011. Eight years after the event medals are still being redistributed, and even then there is an athlete banned for doping offences still with the gold medal. What if questions and hypotheticals can lead us to all sorts of places, but Hatti winning a gold at the Euros back then…that is career and life changing!
Doped athletes have completely twisted the standards we now hold ourselves to. The clean athletes that finish in the positions behind the dopers more likely than not will leave the track, road, or cross thinking they have to train even harder to reach the level of those in front. When actually that level simply isn’t attainable without pharmacological enhancement. Careers of athletes have been curtailed striving to reach that mythical top of Olympus, when they are already pushing the highest peak. These ‘not-normal’ performances that go unchecked then skew the times set to even make championships in the first place. Qualifying standards are then produced as to meet a certain number of athletes across events, using times set the previous several years from some athletes that are possibly doping. Add in to this that any information put out in public sphere regarding a doped athlete training or regime is in itself duping some coaches as to what is achievable or even possible. We enter into a cycle of doped athletes taking away opportunities and medals through unbelievable performances that then skew what clean athletes can physically achieve in training and competition. Add into this how doped athletes change the dynamics of a race and rob athletes of their moment on the podiums, we very quickly begin to build that cynicism factor.
However, and this is a conversation that Steve and I often had, being cynical of certain performances immediately places a barrier up to what you think is possible from yourself. In essence, if I see a performance and state, “there is no way that’s done clean” how can I possibly imagine myself hitting that level or anywhere near it? Yet, for all I know, that might actually be a legitimate run. It is an interesting conundrum to consider. It often leads to a rather interesting conversation of what times does one think actually are possible as a clean athlete. My own reflection on this often leads back to the well-versed sport psychology line of ‘controlling the controllable’. One should only focus on the self – what the individual athlete can achieve rather than looking across with envied eyes at the performances of others. Though this is only natural.
This all said, and do feel free to disagree with me here, I honestly feel that we as a sport are making strides (well, maybe more like baby steps) in the right direction.
‘Bad’ publicity of countries being suspected, sanctions for systematic doping and the spotlight being placed on training groups and medical support practices suggest to me that the difficult questions are starting to be asked. Anti-doping governance may not be perfect and it may often feel like fighting a losing battle but as long as the overwhelming majority of athletes speak up and push to compete in a clean environment, things will continue to change for the better.
As an additional note, I cannot thank Steve and Dr Ian Boardley (my PhD supervisor) enough for their continued support. I know I can be a pain at times trying to balance the two, and sometimes the competing demands of each can mean that occasionally both suffer. However, in terms of set up and assistance I couldn’t wish for two better people to work with.