Catherina McKiernan: 'I wasn't totally naive. Towards the end of my career I was seeing performances that were unnatural'
Published 01/08/2016 | 02:30
For those of us who love the sport so much, everything that has come out about drugs in athletics recently is terrible but, unfortunately, I think we all knew it.
As an athlete it is something you don't want to believe, you don't want the sport to be tarnished like that. But when the Olympics start this week everyone watching will have that in the back, or actually probably to the front, of their minds. We'll all be wondering 'are these performances real?'
I've spoken to some coaches here whose reaction is 'Ah, I've no interest in watching the Olympics, I'd rather watch the juveniles down in Tullamore where you know what they're doing is true.' It is such a shame that the sport has come to this.
I deliberately went to an event in Dublin a couple of months ago where Ben Johnson was speaking because I wanted to hear someone who had cheated, to see exactly what his take was.
I've often wondered what are these athletes thinking? Do they not just want to get the best out of themselves naturally? What satisfaction can they get out of their achievements if they know they have cheated?
But they have no conscience, it's about winning by any means and they don't actually believe they're doing wrong. Ben Johnson's mindset still is that he did no wrong!
As far as he was concerned, he'd trained hard, he'd put in the work and anything (illegal) that he took was something to help him recover. He has himself convinced he was doing no wrong! He showed no remorse whatsoever.
That kind of shocked me, but then I sat back and thought that you probably have to have that sort of mindset in the first place to take drugs.
Maybe I was naïve but I'm being very honest when I say I never thought about it until the very end of my career when people were starting to talk about it a lot more.
I was just so driven and focused that I didn't think about what other athletes were doing. I never looked at the start list before a race. I just went in knowing that I trained well and that I was better than those I was competing against. Myself and my coach Joe Doonan never sat down and had a conversation like 'such a one is on something and that's why she beat you'.
Maybe I was kept away from it because it's not a good mindset to have - you're never going to get the best out of yourself if you're thinking like that.
Some people say it was as rampant then as it is now. I don't know if that's true but, towards the end of my career, I wasn't totally naïve and myself and Joe talked about it once or twice.
At that point I was seeing performances that were unnatural.
I knew myself just how much work you had to put in to achieve certain standards and times so, to see some people so far ahead, of course you're going to begin to question them.
I won't name names but one of the World Cross-Countries where I was beaten made me really question things. I was beating this runner all through the Grand Prix circuit and suddenly she came out a completely different athlete on the day of World Cross Countries.
When I began to realise that people were doing unnatural things, my way of overcoming it was to think about how it must have been affecting them.
I thought I'd have had such a guilty conscience and been so nervous of getting caught that I wouldn't be able to sleep at night and would have performed badly.
That was my way of coping and overcoming it, thinking 'okay, they're taking something but how much benefit can they be getting really if they're that nervous and scared of getting caught?'
I suppose people could have questioned me as well.
At one point there was a year and a half where I won 20 races on the trot. It would have been natural for people to question that - though no-one ever said anything to my face - but those who were close to me, and training with me, knew well that I was just training hard and getting a good run at it.
That is the terrible thing about drugs. There are people who are gifted, or are freaks of nature, and people who get a great run of training and everything is just right between their minds and bodies to produce great performances.
The problem with drugs is that people will point the finger at everybody who produces big wins or good times.
But not everybody is cheating and I really believe all Ireland's athletes are clean. Apart from how often they are tested, it is a mindset and a cultural thing.
As a nation I believe we can sit back and enjoy watching our athletes in Rio and take great satisfaction from the fact that they're not cheating.
I asked Mark English, who will be competing there, if it bothers him when he's going out training every day, thinking that cheats could be competing against him.
He said what really bothers him is if he doesn't do his best or doesn't get the best out of himself. That's how a lot of Irish athletes think.
I do think Rio will be cleaner than London; they have clamped down to a certain extent now, though there will always be people ahead of the testing.
I think the International Olympic Committee should have banned the entire Russian team, in all sports, because it's just rampant in that country, it was systematic.
A blanket ban on Russia would have set a good example and proved that they're really serious about this and really do want to clean up sport.
It looks like they had too much to lose financially. Otherwise they'd surely have thrown the whole Russian team out.