Medals, Meldonium and MarioKart

As the outcome of Yulia Efimova’s doping hearing looms, pullbuoy podcast regular Katie Wyld takes a look into the murky pond of doping in sport

With the 2016 Olympics fast approaching, the news of athlete selections and the preparation of the Olympic site is being overshadowed by the revelation of the extent of the global doping issue. Positive tests – both current and backdated, following retesting of samples at both the Beijing and London Games – seem to be weekly news in the build up to Rio.

With the sheer number of positive tests reported recently, one of the most high profile among those being Maria Sharapova’s positive test for Meldonium, you might be forgiven for wondering if there’s really any point pursuing sport at an elite level without using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). Those outside the athlete bubble are probably imagining that changing rooms are littered with syringes, with athletes casually receiving blood transfusions over dinner, washed down with a steroid chaser. I don’t pretend to know exactly what’s going on now, and despite having experienced both World and European championships, I can’t say I ever saw any evidence of doping. That said, it’s all too clear that it happens, and to the detriment of sport.


After reading a Sky News article in which Russian athlete Tatyana Firova stated that sportsmen and women wouldn’t be able to “achieve high results” without doping, I posted on Twitter suggesting that perhaps as an alternative to the drugs, they might want to consider training hard to achieve results. I was quickly told off by several fellow Twitter users, the key message being that rather than being an alternative to training hard, doping enables them to train harder. I get that. You take the PEDs, you can train until the cows come home, you can recover quicker, and you get back to more hard training. Fine. (I mean, not fine. Cheaters. But I understand the point.)

My point, which is difficult to make clear in 140 characters, is that taking drugs IS an alternative to working hard. To explain this I will use the medium of MarioKart (my Nintendo DS game of choice as a swimmer):

  • Yoshi (aka you) has been putting the practice in. Yoshi is in the form of his life (he’s been hitting the gym), he’s got the optimum kart, and he’s eating well under the close guidance of his sports nutritionist. Yoshi takes on the course totally clean (no banana skins, no mushrooms) and hits his absolute best time of 60 seconds. All the practice in the world wouldn’t and couldn’t have made him any faster.
  • in an attempt to beat your time, you go again. This time you’re racing the ghost of clean Yoshi, who represents your best time so far. To get the edge over clean Yoshi, you give yourself a little boost in the form of a mushroom or two. Doping Yoshi has an advantage clean Yoshi just didn’t have; Doping Yoshi could clear the course in 55 seconds thanks to the magic mushrooms. Yes, Doping Yoshi is still training hard – in fact, he’s in the gym more often than Clean Yoshi since doping Yoshi recovers so quickly these days – and his nutrition is still excellent (and enhanced with a little side of shroom).

Clean Yoshi can try and get there, but there are limits to things which we as humans (or Yoshi as a fictional dinosaur) can achieve without PEDs.

This is why I see PEDs as a shortcut: it’s not because you suddenly don’t have to train; it’s because the upper ceiling is suddenly higher, the realms of possibility are broader, and you’ve given yourself that extra step up the ladder to reach the peak. Feats that were previously described as “inhuman” actually become just that: it’s not an individual or a team producing something extraordinary. It’s extraordinary, all right, but the performance is now from an individual/team AND a whole bunch of chemicals. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that’s not what I want when I watch sport.

On the edge of legality

It’s important to note that advances in our knowledge of the effect various substances can have on performance are being made all the time. Meldonium, the banned substance of the moment, may always have had a performance enhancing effect, but has only been on the list of banned substances since 1 January 2016. Yes, taking it before that would still have enhanced an athlete’s performance, but there was no sanction for doing so, unless it was found to be present in a sample on or after that date.

Maria Sharapova’s mea culpa cut no ice with the doping panel which banned her for two years

Legally, therefore, Sharapova did nothing wrong until after 2015, where it appears she negligently forgot to check that everything she was ingesting was still on the OK list. For what it’s worth, I believe her story – although there is absolutely no excuse for someone who has been notified several times of the change to the drug’s status AND has an entire team around them to stop this sort of thing from happening. She’s admitted that she continued to use the drug after 2015, and with an estimated annual income of $21.9m, she had far too much at stake to knowingly try her luck – she’s MARIA SHARAPOVA. Of course she’s going to be drugs tested. You’re not going to deliberately chance it.

Morally, of course, it’s a different story. Understandably, many people will have no problem with an athlete taking whatever they want unless it’s prohibited. Personally, as an athlete it was always important for me to feel like I was responsible for my achievements through hard work. So I have a slight problem with someone taking something which is not banned, but which clearly has performance-enhancing qualities. Yes, we’ve all heard Sharapova’s heart condition/diabetes arguments, but it seems that her use of Meldonium was never declared on any doping test form she completed. To me, this suggests the drug’s main purpose was to enhance performance and the doping tribunal report into her case of concludes that’s exactly why she was taking it. To be honest, I’d have more respect for her if she just came out and said what we’re all thinking: “I was taking Meldonium to improve my performance, and there was nothing legally wrong with doing this until 2016. I was then incredibly stupid and somehow missed that this wasn’t OK anymore.”

As we wait for the CAS verdict on Sharapova’s aquatic compatriot Yuliya Efimova, it’s worth saying my feelings towards her are less tolerant. After testing positive for steroids in 2014, her resultant ban ended conveniently just in time for her to qualify for a home World Championships, at which she went on to win a gold and a bronze medal. In March of this year, we learned that she too had tested positive for Meldonium on two separate occasions in February 2016. Efimova was also apparently unaware of the drug’s new banned status, but also claimed to have stopped taking it in December. To me, this reeks of someone with no interest in a level playing-field and no respect for her fellow competitors.

Yulia Efimova awaits the outcome of the hearing into her failed meldonium test

The point is, every day of the year athletes in any country are taking substances which might at any day be the new Meldonium. I’m sure this is as true in Great Britain or Australia as it is in China or Russia. The line between so-called “supplements” and PEDs is becoming increasingly blurred as we discover more about the effects these substances have on the body. It’s not clear exactly how many athletes were taking Meldonium before it went on the banned list, but the evidence so far suggests either that it was mainly Russians, or the Russians have somehow managed, en masse, to miss the multiple warnings of its prohibited status. And while I don’t like that there could be so many athletes taking legal PEDs, there’s nothing to stop them from doing so.

Too often, however, we are hearing the “contaminated supplement” argument from athletes who fail doping tests. Sceptically, I tend to consider these people to be trying to take an easy route out and escape culpability for their actions. But there have been cases where athletes have made this argument successfully and proved their innocence (a good example is that of US swimmer Jessica Hardy). If the incidence of tainted supplements is as prevalent as these athletes make out, you’d have thought this would be a compelling case for taking more caution over what you put in your mouth. Exactly how much of a difference is that protein powder going to make, and is it worth the risk of a 4 year ban?

Why does it matter?

There’s a huge amount of evidence that the Olympics sparks increased participation in sport. Certainly it increases interest: not having a clue about shooting I found myself gripped during Peter Wilson’s double trap final (I didn’t know then and still don’t know now what a trap is or why he had two of them, but for some reason I and the hundreds of others in that particular London pub thought it was brilliant), I will watch gymnastics for hours, and when the Winter Olympics come around, it suddenly seems vital that I watch the curling.

When you hear interviews with great champions, more often than not the story will begin with them watching sport on TV, experiencing the sporting triumphs of others, and feeling inspired to go out and have a go. As more of these successes are revealed to be as a result of PEDs – and as more of these role models are revealed to be cheaters – how long can we expect young people to believe that sport is a great route to go down? Too often, coverage of sports themselves is overshadowed by how much the players are being paid per week or the value of their product endorsements. It’s rare that much is made of the early mornings, the unglamorous hours of training, physio sessions and boring food. While none of this is likely to be terribly inspiring to young athletes, there is a danger that glamorising sport in this way might lead to questions of “what can I achieve?” or “how fast can I go/how high can I jump?” being replaced with “what can I get out of this?” With the financial rewards for top performers climbing, it is arguable that the temptation to cheat has never been higher.

For all we can retest old samples and retrospectively disqualify cheaters, there’s no way of ensuring that justice is done. The athlete who trained their guts out to finish 4th behind a cheater will always be denied the moment of glory on the podium in front of friends and family. The athlete who finished second behind a cheater will never experience the feeling of looking up at the scoreboard and seeing that little “1” against their name: that tiny, ecstatic moment that all of the hard work was worth it. Even if you get your Olympic medal eventually, it’s likely that you’ll always feel that there’s an asterisk against the performance and a story to be explained. Yes, you’ve got your medal, but does it right the wrong? A disheartened athlete who finishes 4th at the Olympics (which is completely incredible, by the way, but frustratingly short of a podium place) might decide they’ve had enough and leave the sport feeling they failed to achieve a lifelong goal. All things being equal, the same athlete might be spurred on by their Olympic medal, and have continued in the sport for another Olympic cycle, or indeed left the sport satisfied with their achievements. An entirely different path of life – the only difference being a few pills or the contents of a syringe.

Equally, we should consider the effect of the doping culture on those who are winning fair and square. Having had the privilege of training alongside (actually, quite far behind) an Olympic champion, I’ve witnessed the hard work and single-minded determination that goes into reaching that kind of goal. The more doping becomes accepted as the norm, the greater the suspicion cast upon anyone who excels. It’s now not really possible for an athlete to produce an extraordinary performance without an unspoken question mark hanging over them, which instantly devalues these hard-fought accolades.

Sentiment aside, there’s also limited evidence about the long-term effects these substances have on the body. Something that seems fairly innocuous now could have serious implications for long-term health. And is it worth it? I can’t possibly see how the answer can be yes.

For the cheaters themselves (and here we’re talking those knowingly taking actual banned substances), I would have thought the whole experience would be intensely stressful. Surely it’s just a waiting game until you’re caught – and then what? The effects of sport continue long after you’ve hung up your goggles or thrown away your spikes. As a convicted doper, an athlete’s reputation as a sportsperson is, rightly, ruined, and the price for that can be high: liability to return funding and endorsement money; appearance and motivational speaking opportunities withdrawn. In terms of future employment, the likelihood is it’s going to be tricky: a quick Google search is likely to be enough to reveal previous misdemeanours, and perhaps convince an employer that their trust could be better placed elsewhere.

Katie competes at the 2009 World Championships in Rome

I can’t pretend that I’ve been cheated out of a medal by a doper, but I know the sacrifice that goes into pursuing a goal: I know the feeling of exhausted disbelief when an alarm goes off at 05.18 for the fifth morning in a week; I know how it feels to be barely able to walk after a sprint session; I know how it feels to be missing parties, revising for exams and training for the biggest competition of your life all at the same time. Every day, athletes are putting themselves through this, only to get pipped at the post by those later revealed to be taking PEDs. “Frustrating” is a completely inadequate word to describe the situation. It’s a war we don’t seem to be able to win, a situation that’s becoming more and more common, and it’s tainting sport for competitors and spectators alike.

What do we do? And why do I even care?

And so what are the options? Have athletes placed on 24 hour watch and everything they ingest closely monitored? Limit the total annual income of an athlete from prize money and endorsements in an attempt to reduce the temptation to cheat? Obviously neither of these options is practical, and it seems to me that knowledge of how to cheat has always been ahead of knowledge of how to put a stop to it. Depressingly, it seems unlikely that this will change any time soon. So should we accept that the only way to level the playing field is to get the syringes out?

My view would be absolutely not. I don’t know how we stop this, but the fact is, I love sport and stop it we must. As an athlete, the feeling of achieving something I was never sure I was capable of was amazing, and not something that’s been easy to find in “real” life. In a weird way, I even enjoyed the frustration of seeing other athletes going faster than me, achieving amazing things, breaking boundaries and hitting incredible times, because it made me think that maybe I could do it too, if I just kept working. The knowledge that it wasn’t “them” swimming those times feels, for want of a less dramatic word, a betrayal. The world record swim you watched in awe was actually on fast-forward, and no one wants to watch sport like that (although there are compelling arguments for fast-forwarding baseball). Now as a spectator, I enjoy watching people doing things that I can’t do: pushing the limits of, and this is key, human capabilities as far as is possible. I am a sucker for a sporting achievement. The winning shot in a tennis match, the joy/disbelief of an athlete making their first Olympic team, the relief when you’ve managed to hold on to the lead in the final few seconds of a rugby match: THAT is what’s amazing – seeing the hard work and the sacrifice finally paying off.

If I just wanted to watch people moving really fast, the Dopelympics would be fine. But I want achievement, and I want real, human achievement. Is that so much to ask?

Banner Image: Ciesielski

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