At the 2001 world championships in Edmonton, my Great Britain team-mate Hayley Tullett and I held up a sign in the stands. “EPO CHEATS OUT,” it read. Serious controversy ensued, but I had thought about it a great deal beforehand. It was the product of serious frustration.
The catalyst for the protest in Canada was the participation of the Russian athlete Olga Yegorova in a heat of the 5,000m that was about to begin near where we sat. However, the issue was much bigger than that. We were not specifically getting at her; we were making a protest at the inadequacy of drug-testing in our sport. Shortly before Edmonton, she tested positive for the blood-boosting substance EPO, but the result was overturned because the French testing authorities did not adhere to IAAF protocol. Yegorova escaped on a technicality and was allowed to compete in the 5,000m at Edmonton, a title she went on to win.
To me and to many others, it was an example of what was wrong with our sport and why clean athletes were so frustrated with the authorities. Such a small percentage of budgets is invested in anti-doping, yet it is a vital issue. Without valid, reliable tests for certain substances, everybody knew that there was cheating going on and people getting away with it. It was seriously affecting the credibility of our sport and hurting the majority of athletes who were clean and working hard, only to lose out to those taking short cuts — or, worse still, be accused of cheating themselves.
We routinely spend our time giving drug tests, yet the system wasn’t capable of detecting the most effective and abused doping products. Finally, when somebody was caught, she got away with it because protocol had not been followed. How could clean athletes sit back and do nothing? To have accepted Yegorova’s presence without protest would have been akin to saying doping didn’t matter. To me, to have sat back and done nothing would have been not to have the courage to stand up for what I believed in; it would have given the impression that we athletes were happy with how things were, when the truth was that we weren’t.
As we held the sign up, there were Russians nearby yelling at us, and we worried about what other athletes would think of what we were doing. We knew we were taking a risk, putting ourselves up as targets for what we believed in. Yet I have always said that fear is no reason not to do what you believe is right. We felt that the IAAF wasn’t listening to us or doing enough to fight doping; we wanted the public to know that most athletes were clean and weren’t happy with the way our sport was being portrayed.
Athletics is an amazing sport. It has brought so much to me as a person. To see its credibility damaged, to think about parents not wanting their children to take up athletics because of the fear of facing the spectre of drugs if they wanted to advance, hurts me. Running is about who works hardest and then runs fastest. It is about getting to the finish first fairly. Every athlete must start from the same point, something that is not possible when some are doping. If you invest so much of yourself, you have a right to fair competition and a right to be able to prove your innocence. That is one of the bugbears of modern sport: how does the successful athlete prove he or she is clean? By passing the tests? Everybody knows the tests are not guaranteed to expose the cheats. We wanted to focus attention on the need for better, more accurate testing and greater use of blood profiling tests.
Taken from 'My Story So Far'.
Picture: Victor Sailer