My reaction yesterday to the news that long distance runner Paula Radcliffe had issued a four-page statement acknowledging that she had been the ‘household name’ British athlete mentioned in the series of exposures begin last month by The Sunday Times (in conjunction with the German broadcaster ARD) on the widespread extent of the use of performance-enhancing drugs in the sport of track and field was one of low-key “Oh, so that’s who it was” rather than (as perhaps even I might have been expecting) shock and horror that the athlete concerned was ‘our’ Saint Paula.
It is important to state at this point that the 41-year-old Radcliffe headlined her statement with the oft-repeated assertion that she had never used performance-enhancing drugs during her athletic career and that any and all of her laboratory results that suggested otherwise were absolutely explainable by other (external) causes, including for example the short length of time after completing a race at which the tests were taken and the effects of training at altitude.
For completeness, the gist of the allegations by The Sunday Times and ARD (whose information was gained by a whistle-blower) concerned some 12,000 blood tests taken from 5,000 elite athletes since about 2004.
These showed that – as regards distance events, i.e. between 800 metres and the marathon – some 800 athletes had registered blood values that ranged from ‘suspicious’ to ‘highly suspicious’. Whilst nobody other than already-identified and/or punished drugs cheats was actually ‘fingered’ in these revelations, the extrapolation was made that, over the period covered by the survey, one in three of all athletes completing in these events had registered dodgy blood results at some point and also that one in six of all medallists at World championships and Olympics had done so – no fewer than ten at the 2012 London Olympics.
Among the headlines in the exposures was one that eight British athletes – including said ‘household name’ – were amongst those who had produced ‘suspicious’ results.
Again, it should be mentioned that that nobody was actually being accused of doping per se – the journalists were simply recording the views of sports medicine experts they had consulted that the chances of the athletes having produced the ‘suspicious’ results concerned by entirely natural (i.e. non-doping and/or non-interference of some sort) means ranged from between one in twenty and one in 500,000 or more.
In other words, the inference was, the possibility (whilst not entirely out of the question) that these results were simply natural and ‘explainable’ was pretty unlikely – to put no finer point upon it, some of those producing these ‘suspect’ blood results had some explaining to do.
From my perspective, all of the above seemed pretty straightforward and not at all unreasonable.
In the public furore that followed the exposures, and the follow-up drip-drip further revelations, British athletes such as Mo Farah (already informally by association implicated via an earlier BBC Panorama programme setting out drug-related accusations against his US coach Alberto Salazar) and Jo Pavey deliberately published their blood test results in order to prove that they had nothing to hide.
She apparently decided to go public only after she was accidentally and indirectly ‘outed’ by Jesse Norman MP during a hearing of the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee.
It seems that Radcliffe was always the alleged ‘household name’ athlete referred to amongst the eight British athletes on the list of those returning ‘suspect’ blood test results. She had been contemplating publicly admitting as much far earlier – throughout her career her attitude has been one of uncompromising opposition to the use of performance–enhancing drugs in athletics – but had apparently been dissuaded from doing so by her advisers and friends, seemingly on the basis that there was no point in deliberately inviting the publicity and media scrum that would inevitably accompany any admission on her part that she was one of the eight.
And so there we have it.
I haven’t read yesterday’s four-page statement by Radcliffe but I understand that she has listed explanations, or at least possible reasons, as to why some of her blood tests might have registered as ‘suspicious’. All of these as natural and/or relate to the conditions under which the tests were taken.
There are two sides to this issue, of course. The first is tangled up in the formalities of the process of accusation, challenge, defence, a hearing then judgement … and then possibly further appeals or challenges … and even going to some sporting court of arbitration or another. Nobody should be charged with an offence (and when it comes to track and field, world events and the attendant commercial interests, never mind the medals, we’re talking criminal in moral terms if not legal) without due procedure and proper evidence being presented and/or with the presumption of ‘innocent until proved guilty’ being abandoned.
On the other hand, when faced with the statement that since 2004 some 800 athletes at world championships and Olympics have produced blood test results that are ‘suspicious’ (some of them to the extent that there was only a one in 1,000,000 chance that they could have been produced without non-natural ‘intervention’ of some kind) most impartial observers looking on from the outside – among whose number I would place myself although I am implacably against the use of performing-enhancing drugs in any sport – could be forgiven for feeling uneasy and thence withholding their ‘belief’ in any coverage of track and field that is served up by the television and radio broadcasting authorities.