Track & Field

Doping Dilemma: suspicious minds mean many questions, but few right answers

On the first Sunday night of the IAAF World Championships, in the bowels of the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing, one European journalist raised his hand with a question for Justin Gatlin.

“Justin, a few of the other athletes in the race have said it was an important victory for the sport because you’ve been banned twice. What’s your comment on that?”

Gatlin sat forward, looked his inquisitor in the eye with a sombre stare and said: “I’m thankful.”

The journalist, not happy with the response, pressed on: “Anything more? Can you be more specific?”

“Specifically, I’m thankful,” deadpanned Gatlin.

“Is that what you have to say? It’s an important issue for me, at least.”

“Very important, said Gatlin. “Then I’m thankful.”

Usain Bolt burst into laughter at the exchange. The journalist walked out. Who wouldn’t?

Usain Bolt on what he'd say to kids: "It’s just all about hard work and dedication." Image: PhotoRun

Usain Bolt on what he’d say to kids in the wake of the doping scandals: “It’s just all about hard work and dedication.” Image: PhotoRun

A few minutes later, I threw my hand up and asked Bolt for an opinion.

“Usain, the sport has had a tough summer and sprinting in general struggles with the doping problem and its perception. What do you say to young athletes who are looking up to you guys and wondering: can I succeed in this sport as a clean person?”

“For me, anything is possible,” said Bolt. “I’ve been working hard. I always push myself. I’ve a good coach who I always give thanks to, who always helps me with everything I’ve been through with injury. I’ve got to give thanks to Dr. Muller Wohlfahrt, my German doctor, who always helps me to get back on track. It’s just all about hard work and dedication. That’s what I’m here for. I’ve been doing it for years, and just keep focused.”

It was an answer, but not quite an answer to the question.

Suspicious Minds

That same night, the fastest 800m athlete in the world this year, Amel Tuka of Bosnia, was standing in the mixed zone after breezing through his 800m semi-final.

Having progressed from  a best of 1:46.12 last year to 1:42.51 this season, journalists were naturally keen to know what had led to Tuka’s huge improvement.

“I started [athletics] when I was 18 and before that I trained in karate for six years,” said the 24-year-old. “I have a black belt and that was the only sport I did before. I don’t know. God has given me these PB’s and this power for athletics, and that’s the reason my best will come.”

After winning the bronze medal in the final, Tuka credited his move to Italian coach Gianni Ghedini for his improvement. “I train in Italy full time and we change a lot of things,” he said. “One was endurance. Before I had very good speed but not endurance. Last year I was sixth in the European Championships, and this season we worked very hard and were very professional. I listen to my coach. We are very happy with the progress and I hope next season we will make more of a progress.”

As good as the world championships had been – and make no mistake, they were pretty damn great – the problem for many was the lingering questions, the persistent inner turmoil.

When watching any outstanding run, jump, throw or walk, it was that voice inside that couldn’t help but raise the question – that question – and many times, there was no right answer.

The innocence was gone, made off with in the night by the roided-up hoodlums of the past.

Fast pass to insanity

Under the spotlight: Julius  Yego took gold in the men's javelin in Beijing Image: PhotoRun

Under the spotlight: Julius Yego took gold in the men’s javelin in Beijing Image: PhotoRun

After a summer of scandal, where the sport was painted in many quarters as a cesspool of depravity, it’s the good ones who now have to suffer. The problem is: the honest athletes look the same, smile the same, talk the same and often perform the same as the crooks, so trying to decide who warrants the inquisition – and who deserves our trust – is a fast pass to insanity.

On the Wednesday night, Kenya’s Julius Yego took his nation’s first title in the men’s javelin with a whopping effort of 92.72m, a throw seven metres longer than his best before this season.

As Yego spoke to the press, some journalists broke away to speak to his coach. “Why are his eyes so bloodshot?” they asked. The coach furrowed his brow a little at the question, and said: “I don’t know;  his eyes have always been the same since the day I met him.”

Two days later, Dafne Schippers of the Netherlands produced the most jaw-dropping performance of the week in the women’s 200m, running 21.63, the third fastest time ever. It means the Dutch 23-year-old is now only slower than Florence Griffith-Joyner and Marion Jones, whose reputations have long resided in the gutter when it comes to doping.

So what, then, to make of Schippers, a freakishly talented junior athlete who had focused on heptathlon until this year? Naturally, the press pack descended, smelling blood, hunting for an answer to the eternal question: could she be trusted?

“I know I am clean and I work very hard for it,” said Schippers, whose coach Bart Bennema is one of the most trusted and respected figures in Dutch athletics, one with an impeccable record when it comes to coaching clean athletes.

Speed queen: Dafne Schippers became the third fastest woman of all time when winning the 200m in 21.63. Image: PhotoRun

Speed queen: Dafne Schippers became the third fastest woman of all time when winning the 200m in 21.63. Image: PhotoRun

Bennema was surrounded for the best part of a half hour by journalists wanting, needing, an explanation. “She doesn’t have the best predecessors,” admitted Bennema. “It’s as simple as that. She can’t help it.”

He tried to explain just how talented Schippers is, how she ran 7.60 seconds for 60 metres at the age of 16, the first year they began working together, how her progression had been steady and consistent since then, but what use was it? The questions kept coming, this time pondering how a white woman could run so fast in an event dominated by those of African descent.

“It’s not a factor for us,” he said. “She has the right genes, she does the right sport. When they line up it’s just eight women who want to run fast.”

At 23, Schippers looks set to do exactly that for several years to come, but what she may never outrun, unfortunately, are the whispers, the questions.

It’s not her fault who came before, how so many picked our pockets and lied to our faces, but because of them, it’s now her burden to carry.

The journalists, meanwhile, along with the fans of the sport, carry on with the guessing games, asking questions to which there is no right answer.

We hope they might offer a glimpse within – a guide as to whether the performances were as pure as the driven snow or souped up on a cocktail of chemistry – but in reality, we’ll never know.

And that, above all, is a pity, for there was greatness on show during those nine days in Beijing. False greatness, occasionally, but also lots of genuine greatness.

And as long as the latter keeps exceeding the former, which current evidence suggests it does, the show must go on.









Image courtesy of PhotoRun
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Cathal Dennehy

Cathal Dennehy

Cathal Dennehy is a freelance journalist, a once-serious, now-retired athlete who writes for a number of international publications in the running industry. He previously worked for the Sunday Tribune, Irish Runner magazine and has written for the Sunday Independent, Irish Independent, Irish Examiner and the Guardian. He is also a regular contributor to Runner's World.
His banter levels are often poor, occasionally exceptional.

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