Posted on Friday, December 2nd, 2022 at 2:25 pm and is filed under Butcher's Blog | 0


Around 25 years ago when the use of EPO, the most effective drug of choice for distance runners was spreading wider and wider, one of my oldest running friends, by now a successful coach took on a young athlete who was destined for great things. The pair shall remain nameless to avoid embarrassment but, as he reminded me a few weeks ago, my pal told his aspiring charge, ‘You have a unique talent, and can compete with the very best, but the Africans are so good that if they start taking drugs, we’ll be fucked!’

Up until then, there had been a sort of naïve consensus, along the lines of, oh, the Africans are so good, they don’t need to take drugs; and in any case, Kenyans won’t even take an aspirin. This is the sort of ‘noble savage’ delusion that should have gone out of fashion with Robinson Crusoe and Hiawatha in the early 18th century. For the record, and off the record, the first Kenyan I know to admit to taking EPO was in the early 1990s.

So, my coaching pal’s fears were already being realised. And there wasn’t yet a functional test for EPO. The athlete he was coaching also told me recently that, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he would find himself at 3000 metres in a 5000 metres race, ‘in oxygen debt,’ because the field had gone through in close to 7min 40sec, ‘and I was just trying to hang on ‘til the end’. This is a man who got close to 13mins for 5000 metres! Paula Radcliffe once told me that she and her colleagues would watch these millennium men’s races from the stands, laughing sarcastically in disbelief. One of my own indelible memories of that period was of watching Ali Saïdi-Sief cruise to victory in the 3000 metres at the Grand Prix meeting in Monaco 2000, while watching himself on the Diamond screen. He ran 7min 25.02sec, third fastest in history, and looked like he was jogging. Given Saïdi-Sief’s matinee-idol good looks my pal suggested that the Algerian was straightening his hair for the finish-line photo. After witnessing that, I was convinced that Saïdi-Sief was a nailed-on favourite for Olympic 5000 metres gold six weeks later. But he finished second in Sydney, and then got busted the following year. My only conclusion was that he had come off the juice too soon prior to Sydney.

That was bad enough, but twenty years later, things have got measurably worse; latest evidence of which is the 50+ Kenyans who are currently serving suspensions for doping offences. We used to talk about a tidal wave of Kenyan excellence, now it is a tsunami of dope. Incidentally, there doesn’t seem to be much testing done outside the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, given ongoing civil war, but well, you get the picture, and you’ve seen the results.

Now, anyone who has lived as long as I have is bound to be a bit cynical (21, since you ask, times three and counting!), but I can see how a federation like World Athletics which boasts (and it does) around 200 member countries has to walk a tightrope over international politics, competing factions and sponsors’ interests, so WA Prez, my old pal Lord Seb has not got an easy job. But at the WA council meeting in Rome this week, the promise of substantial investment from the Kenyan government – $25m over five years – to combat the problem means that no other action will be taken or ban imposed by WA for the time being. As for the money, best of luck with that, I hear you say. Over to the sponsors, I respond, and not for the first time. And the long-term sponsor of the Kenyan federation is of course, the Oregon behemoth, Nike which has as many fingers as are necessary for however many pies are required.

On the international politics front, having seen the contribution that the sporting boycott of South Africa made to the end of apartheid, I do idly wonder if Vladimir Rasputin would have invaded Ukraine had Russia not been banned from both the Olympic Games and the little footy tournament currently exercising the philosophical (I use the word loosely) verbal tightrope capacities of more than several soccer luminaries either commentating or spectating in Qatar at the moment. By the way, so you’ll be in no doubt as to my collusion, I admit to having attended several IAAF track meetings in Doha in the distant past. As it is, Pooty-Poot, as Dubya ridiculously called him, trying to paint him as a joke character, just gave his warring instincts full rein. Some joke!

None of which gets us anywhere nearer solving the pernicious problem of doping in athletics. But, as I have written elsewhere, at least athletics is addressing the problem while, as my coaching pal observes, ‘If some team sports applied testing as stringently, there’d hardly be anyone left on the field’.

To paraphrase a well-worn quotation, attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but probably of older provenance, ‘The price of athletics’ future is eternal vigilance,’ ie test, test and keep on testing, better and better. Because there will always be people who want to cheat, and it has recently been suggested to me that third world athletes are more likely to do so, because the rewards are comparatively higher for athletes from poor, low-wage economies. I’m not sure about that one. In contrast, and if you have time, I direct you to my evaluation of detailed accounts of the two most recent organised national cheating ventures in what passes for the First World – the 2014 Sochi Olympics and the Nike Oregon project –  https://www.globerunner.org/01/by-other-means/


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *