Monday 19 August 2019

Mary Cullen fighting to survive in slipstream of dopers in the dirty world of cheats

Ireland's Mary Cullen with the bronze medal she won in the Women's 3000m
Ireland's Mary Cullen with the bronze medal she won in the Women's 3000m
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

Remember the name Rollo Tomasi from the 1997 movie L.A. Confidential? Rollo Tomasi was the made-up name Ed Exley gave the man who shot his father and got away with it.

"Rollo Tomasi is the reason I became a cop," Exley (played by Guy Pearce) tells his LA Police Department colleague Jack Vincennes in a scene.

"I wanted to catch the guys who thought they could get away with it," Exley adds.

Athletics is stacked with versions of Rollo Tomasi; athletes who thought they could get away with cheating and doping and athletes who are getting away with it.

Russia must have felt the invincibility of a Rollo Tomasi. They pocketed 17 medals in track and field at the 2012 London Olympic Games with athletes with "suspicious doping profiles" allowed to compete.

But hey, what was there to worry about back then when you had the likes of the Kremlin and the IAAF watching your back? But just who was watching out for the clean athletes?

Clean athletes spend time in this strange kind of purgatory where they try and chase down phantom times and performances set by dirty athletes in a playing field which is chemically screwed-up.


Being cheated on by doped-up athletes in a race doesn't just mean being pushed down the food chain. It splinters into being affected mentally, emotionally and physically for the athletes who don't cheat.

Just ask Mary Cullen.

Cullen's international career looked like it was about to go global after the 2009 European Indoor Championships in Turin.

With less than 200m to go in the 3,000m final, Cullen tried but couldn't out-kick the little-known Ethiopian-born athlete Alemitu Bekele who was running for Turkey. Bekele won. Cullen (right) finished third.

Bekele set a standard Cullen felt she needed to be at to mix it with the world's elite. After Turin, she wanted to go harder at it after coming so close to winning.

"I thought if I just keep training hard and keep the intensity up, then maybe I would close the gap on the two athletes ahead of me. And maybe the next time I would get ahead of them."

Cullen's body couldn't keep up with her ambitions. She sustained a pelvic stress fracture in training and missed out on the track season that summer.

"That was kind of when the vicious cycle of injuries began," she admitted. "I just kept thinking that I'm being left behind.

"So every time I got healthy, I wanted to show everyone that I was still capable of competing at the highest level. But because I was forcing things and wanting to get back fast, the injuries kept coming.

"All the time I knew I was trying to play catch-up on athletes who were potentially doping and this was why I pushed myself, physically, to the brink.

"When you are going through so many injuries in quick succession, your confidence takes a serious beating.

"You wonder if you are good enough to get back, if you are being left behind and if your federation cares if you get back or not," Cullen conceded.

"Whether they are rational or irrational thoughts, it's not a pleasant time and you can really isolate yourself. It's not out of badness, it's just how you start to cope when you are in the cycle of injuries.

"If there was a more level playing field I don't think athletes would push themselves to such depths."

Cullen almost broke herself trying to keep up only to discover that athletes like Bekele had been fooling everyone all along.

In January 2013, Bekele got a four-year ban (reduced to two years and nine months after an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport) for irregularities found on her biological passport.

Her results from August 2009 were annulled. How her European Indoor gold medal four months earlier, when she beat Cullen, is allowed to stand is incomprehensible.

Doped-up athletes also cheat clean, full-time athletes out of making some kind of a living for themselves.

Don't be fooled into thinking there's much money to be made in athletics but every podium finish helps.

"I know I can't say if it wasn't for her (Bekele) I could have been European champion as I got the bronze. But having doped athletes in there affects results.

"Financially, the difference for endorsements as a bronze medallist to silver to gold can be quite significant. Or it could make the difference when you have to put a case together to try and get funding," Cullen said.

Cullen, 33, has been injury-free since April this year. For the first time in eight years she was able to run in the National Track and Field Championships in August where she won the 5,000m.

She will compete in the National Cross-Country Championships in Santry tomorrow week and hopes to be part of the women's team for next month's European Cross-Country.


Cullen is a full-time athlete, gets drug-tested out of competition around twice every three months and hasn't received a penny of funding since 2010.

She is supported by her family and boyfriend Mark. When she needed surgery on her Achilles last year, her mother paid for her surgery in London which cost over €6000.

Cullen is not looking for your sympathy here. This is just what life is like on the other side of the tracks when you play it clean but remain in the slipstream of others' dirty exhaust fumes.

The morning after the World Anti-Doping Agency's revelations about Russian athletics this week, Cullen's legs felt a bit tired during her eight-mile run.

She began to wonder if doped-up athletes ever feel fatigue. Or if they just feel invincible.

But Cullen is no longer consumed by what other athletes are doing. She sets her own targets with the ultimate dream of qualifying for her first Olympic Games in Rio next year.

There will always versions of Rollo Tomasi in athletics. I just hope there will always be athletes like Cullen to keep the rest of us believing.

Irish Independent

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