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Conflicts of Interest

With my old running friends at the 2012 London Olympics

In 2012 I travelled to London to watch the London Olympics with old running friends.  Although we attended many different sports, our primary interest was in the running events, and those we couldn't attend in person, we tried to watch live on TV.

Today there has been a lot of news coverage about the World Anti Doping Authority (WADA) finding that systemic drug cheating has been occurring in Russia, and particularly by Russian athletes at the London Olympics.  Despite Russia's protestations, I suspect that the drug cheating is even more wide-spread than WADA has described.  It's like the drug-testing itself, it only formally identifies instances where the proof of cheating is incontrovertible, and doesn't address those instances where it looks likely but cannot be proved.

The start of the Women's 5000m Final

Some months ago, there were stories in the press about the possibility that athletes trained by the former US marathon star, Alberto Salazar, were using prohibited drugs.  It has been denied and nothing has been proved, although I think there is a formal investigation underway.  Some of the allegations revolved around research being done to determine how much of some banned drugs could be taken before athletes would test positive.  I'll bet that there are coaches and organisations in other countries doing the same research.  I guess their self-justification is that if the athlete doesn't fail the threshold-based drug tests, then they haven't broken the rules or gained unfair advantage, but they are kidding themselves.

There have also been leaked IAAF documents in the past year suggesting that performance-enhancing drug use is widespread, particularly among African distance runners, and there have been recent instances of high-profile African marathon runners being banned for drug use.

The start of the Women's 1500m Final

The rewards for cheating athletes, their coaches and their managers are immense.  The kudos is often accompanied by huge financial rewards and increased opportunities.  Ethics and fair play will undoubtedly be ignored by some in the face of such incentives.  The only solution is regulation and high quality testing with severe penalties for transgressions.

However, the WADA findings also seem to suggest corruption on the part of those organisations responsible for enforcing the rules, including the top echelons of the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF).  I suspect that there are other organisers of major athletic meetings and city marathons who will turn a blind eye, or even conspire with elite athletes to hinder drug-testing, in order to have big names at their events.  The rewards for them are similar - kudos, money and opportunity.

Everywhere you look there are conflicts of interest and the only solution involves top-down reform as is the case with other major sports that have been in the news.  Sadly, I've become incredibly cynical.  As much as I want to believe in the integrity of the world's best distance runners, I simply cannot get excited about their performances any more.  I'm not even interested in who the world's best marathon runners are because I simply don't trust in the integrity of the sport.

I joined my usual Tuesday morning running buddies today for 9km with a few hills.  My legs felt wooden in my warm-up and I was happy to follow the pack during the run, with my quads, in particular, feeling very tired.  However, I finished in reasonable shape and will try running a bit further tomorrow, but with no pressure.