Friday 24 May 2019

'People need to get their head out of the clouds and realise there is a problem'

Ireland’s Mary Cullen, centre, competing during her heat of the Women’s 5000m at the 2007 World Championships
Ireland’s Mary Cullen, centre, competing during her heat of the Women’s 5000m at the 2007 World Championships

Cathal Dennehy

Irish athletes Mark English and Mary Cullen have called on the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to act now in the fight against doping after it was revealed that one in three medals won between 2001-12 were won by athletes with suspicious blood values.

The report - which was broadcast on Saturday night by German TV network ARD - outlined how an IAAF whistle-blower leaked a document containing results of approximately 12,000 blood tests from 5,000 elite athletes, 800 of whom had readings that were deemed "suspicious or highly suspicious".

Focusing on medal winners alone, the conclusion was that every third medal in that period was won by an athlete suspected of doping.

"It doesn't surprise me at all," said English, who won the bronze medal over 800m at the European Championships in Zurich last year.

"It's not a good day for a clean athlete trying to succeed in the sport. I watched the documentary and I didn't like hearing it but it is the reality of the situation.

"It would probably confirm the suspicions that I have. I never like to talk about them too much because it often sounds like jealousy. You want to believe everybody is doing it clean but if these blood values are correct, then it's a big cause for concern."


Among the allegations in the report was a claim that Athletics Kenya (AK) was complicit in covering up positive doping tests from some of its athletes - 88 of whom were among the 800 athletes with abnormal blood profiles - in return for financial payments, an allegation AK said was "suspect and ill-motivated".

Asked what he hopes the report will mean for his sport, English's wish is that it will ignite change in the governing body's approach to anti-doping.

"I just hope the powers that be that police the sport use their resources," he said. "If it's true there's complicity involved with certain organisations then that needs to be tackled, because when it gets to that level, there's not much hope for the next aspiring athlete in that system."

English (22) was still a junior back in 2012 - the most recent year covered by the testing data - but one Irish athlete who competed internationally for much of that era was Sligo's Mary Cullen.

To her, the report made for frustrating, though unsurprising, viewing.

"It's probably nothing we haven't suspected," said the 32-year-old, who was a European indoor medallist over 3,000m in 2009.

"People need to get their head out of the clouds and realise there is a problem. The runner in me would love to think (the doping problem) was overestimated, but I'd say it's probably accurate enough."

Cullen - who has struggled with injury in recent years and was cut from funding by Athletics Ireland - is still part of the Irish Sports Council's testing system, which she feels compares well with its international counterparts.

"I'm tested about four or five times a year, which is not a huge amount, but they are pretty stringent," she said.

"From what I hear from athletes close to me in other countries, some of their own federations barely test them - it's Wada (the World Anti-Doping Agency) or the IAAF."

Cullen echoed English's wish that the IAAF now use the scandal as a catalyst for change.

"They need to do a lot more," she said. "When it comes to endurance, there's always going to be people ahead of the testers. You stand on the start line and have your suspicions, but you have to get on with it.

"I think athletes need to come out more and talk about it. It's left in the hands of the IAAF, and sometimes with these organisations there's a lot of corruption. Athletes have to start making more of a stand."

Despite the prevalence of doping, Cullen believes it's possible for clean athletes to compete at the international level, saying: "You wouldn't do it unless you thought you could win medals clean."

Though Cullen will have to run below 15.20 for 5,000m in the next week to book her place at the upcoming IAAF World Championships in Beijing - her season's best is 15.29 - English is already qualified for the 800m.

As he looks to the future, he refuses to believe that doping is necessary to succeed at the highest level.

"I think it is possible (to win without doping) in certain events," he said. "I think it is in my event.

"If those allegations are true you have to imagine it's much harder for a clean athlete to succeed in the longer distances but I fully believe I can medal in Rio next year as a clean athlete."

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