Last updated: 30-Aug-18
By Ian Corless
You may have noticed but sport in general is going through a tough time. Athletics is in a mess. The Russians are out and there are questions over Salazar. Seb Coe is backtracking and amongst all this there has been a series of positive tests in basketball, tennis, football and so on…
Trail running has to all intents and purposes been isolated, in a bubble you could say. That bubble was, burst though, late in 2015 when Italian runner, Elisa Desco turned up in the USA to run in San Francisco. iRunFar commented in a pre-race article that Desco had previously tested positive for EPO and had served a 2-year ban.
The internet exploded. Facebook and Twitter ignited into a series of debates and posts that said, ‘convicted’ dopers were not welcome in the sport of trail, mountain and ultra running. Notice I did not add Skyrunning here! The reason being that Desco had raced repeatedly in the Skyrunner World Series in 2015 and in the years before that after she had been served with her ban. She had had many wins and some of these victories (not all) had been confirmed clear with post-race drug testing.
I commented at the time on my thoughts regarding this and you can read them HERE.
A flurry of responses in the USA saw many runners become vocal about #cleansport and let’s be clear here, I am 100% for clean sport. Ian Sharman was very proactive and a website was created where athletes could sign up and declare that they would run clean. It was a start and I am sure the momentum will fuel onward debate and proactive actions that ensure a ‘clean’ sport for all those who participate in trail, mountain, ultra and Skyrunning races.
Cut to March 2016 and Maria Sharapova stands at a press conference and declares to the world that she has tested positive for a drug called Meldonium.
Shock, horror; what a bombshell! one of THE most successful sports stars in the world is found guilty of doping!
However, the press conference was a wonderful process of damage limitation. A humble Sharapova immediately confessed her guilt, accepted the blame, hung her head low and said yes, I am guilty.
I have to say, I found it refreshing. It was a David Millar moment and very unlike Lance Armstrong.
What followed though was an explanation…
“I take responsibility for my professionalism in my job and I made a big mistake. I know there will be consequences and I don’t want to end my career this way. I really hope I will be given another chance to play tennis again. I can’t blame anyone but myself. I have let my fans down.”
It turns out that Sharapova had been taking Meldonium for ‘health’ issues for the previous ten years. Ironically, Meldonium until January 1st 2016 had been ‘legal!’ By legal, I mean not on the WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) banned list.
‘I had legally been taking this for ten years,’ said Sharapova, ‘I received a notification from the International Tennis Federation on December 22 that it was being outlawed.’
Sharapova had received an email on December 22nd that informed her of changes to the banned list that would become effective from January 1st. Sharapova didn’t read the email or the list and obviously neither did her manager, support crew or the countless entourage who look after her.
Maybe WADA should test for reading emails too?
It was a huge mistake by the Sharapova crew and what followed was a drug test at the Australian Open which she obviously failed.
It got me thinking and I am sure many of you, I wonder how many athletes are ‘legally’ doping to gain an advantage?
Just think about it, many athletes look for an edge, an edge to improve; be that to run faster, be stronger, run longer or maybe even a combination of all three. For some that will be to step up from 8-hours training per week to 10-hours. But that can only last so long. We tweak our nutrition, we look at our hydration, we wear heart rate monitors, we use a GPS and the list goes on. These are all tweaks to help us gain a personal edge to enhance our performance. What about compression, gels, altitude tents, kinesiology tape… oh boy, I could go on and on.
What Sharapova had been doing pre January 1st 2016 was gaining that ‘edge.’ Her use of Meldonium was perfectly legal as it was not on WADA’s banned list. But was it ethical?
Ethical, now that’s a word that requires honesty, self analysis and awareness. It pertains to how we deal with morals or the principle of morality.
Statistics show that at the time of writing this post (March 24th) WADA have made 99 positive tests since January 1st for Meldonium. Looks like Sharapova was not the only one who was aware of the ‘legal’ benefits of Meldonium
So cutting to the chase, will we EVER have a clean sport?
We may have a ‘legal’ sport but money, research, the quest for the edge will always mean that somebody somewhere is pushing a boundary, making a decision that at the time is legal but not ethical.
‘Where’s the line between blood-spinning and blood transfusions? Where’s the line between legitimate use of thyroid hormone to treat a condition and illegitimate use to enhance performance? Then there are the number of distance runners with asthma who take medication that has performance-enhancing effects. Tramadol, the heavy-duty painkiller, is under similar scrutiny in the cycling world. The very words Therapeutic Use Exemption understandably causes an involuntary raising of the eyebrows.’ (reference Owen Gibson, The Guardian here)
Alberto Salazar is under the spotlight at the moment, and Mo Farah has had questions marks placed on his career. Salazar has very carefully rebutted any wrong doing, ‘I am determined to do anything that will gain the slightest edge but determined,’ he says, ‘to stay within the law.’
You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand what he means.
Our only judging tool is WADA and the list that WADA provides that tells us all, what is and what is not doping!
So going back to Sharapova, was her crime to use Meldonium to improve her recovery times and increase aerobic capacity ‘legally’ but ethically wrong? Or was her biggest crime (and those around her) a failure to read an email?
Nick Wojek, UK Anti-Doping’s Head of Science commented on March 8th, ‘It’s a borderline ethical discussion – if an athlete could be taking it without a medical reason there are questions around the ethics of whether an athlete should be taking it in this way.’
But we can’t test ethics, ethics are personal and one could arguably say that this is why trail, mountain, ultra and Skyrunning has always been so relaxed, with little or no regulation.
Legendary ultra runner, Karl Meltzer (Speedgoat), a close friend and fellow co-host of my podcast Talk Ultra has won thirty eight 100 mile races. His last victory was March 19th 2016. I asked him some months ago, ‘how many times have you been tested in what amounts to 20-years of ultra running?’
His answer, ‘never!’
It beggars belief that the most prolific 100-mile runner ever, with 38 victories has NEVER been tested for drugs. Don’t get me wrong here, I don’t question Speedgoat’s integrity, not at all, but how is it possible that someone can run so long, at such a high level and not be tested?
Of course a reply may come from the community saying that there is no money in the sport, so why would Speedgoat or anyone like him cheat?
I beg to differ, Speedgoat has some great sponsorship contracts with Redbull, Hoka One One and others. Also let’s take his victory at Run Rabbit Run a few years back – he took home more than $10,000 for that little jolly.
By contrast, Ellie Greenwood, Max King, Holly Rush, Lizzy Hawker and many others are regularly tested due to their past participation in key races where they have represented their countries. Kilian Jornet and Emelie Forsberg have regular tests because of their participation in Skimountaineering. Is that fair? Why not everybody?
So where does this leave us?
Trail, ultra, mountain and Skyrunning are growing sports for sure, however, budgets are small and although Skyrunning has been proactive with post-race testing at key events, until we have a blood passport system there are no guarantees that everyone is sticking to the rules.
But that for me is the tip of the iceberg, as Sharapova has clearly displayed, huge gains are to be made legally if you have the time, resources, money and maybe a lack of ethics?
WADA clearly display a prohibited list here and if you are one of those genetically gifted runners that can come close to the top twenty, you should look at this list and toe the line in the knowledge that you are clean.
More importantly though, maybe the list you should look at is the one on the ‘Monitoring Program!’ As WADA explains, ‘WADA, in consultation with signatories and governments, shall establish a monitoring program regarding substances which are not on the Prohibited List, but which WADA wishes to monitor in order to detect patterns of misuse in sport.’
Meldonium was on that list in 2015. (see here)
The problem is — what goes on the WADA list? And how can something change from OK to banned?
If a substance or method prompts a ‘yes’ to two of the following, it’s banned:
- Does it potentially enhance performance?
- Is it potentially dangerous?
- Is it contrary to the spirit of sport?
So in conclusion, take the ethics test. The ‘Monitoring Program’ as mentioned above will tell you what is currently hot! One thing is for sure, if a product is on that list, at the time of ‘monitoring’ it’s legal and probably enhances performance.
All you now need to do now is just make sure you check your emails…!
Read up on WADA HERE