Paula Radcliffe is the world record holder in the marathon and three-time London Marathon winner. Learn more about her by visiting her website, www.paularadcliffe.com.
A couple of weeks ago I spoke at the Partnership for Clean Competition London 2019 Conference.
Paula Radcliffe speaking at PCC 2019 (PCC)
To those not familiar with the day-to-day ins and outs of anti-doping, the PCC event has traditionally been seen as an American conference that puts the leading lights from Professional Sports - such as MLB and the NFL - in a room with those from my side of the sporting fence: the Olympic world. Well, two weeks ago the PCC shifted this dynamic with a debut this side of the Atlantic to become a truly global conference. It came of age, and I know that I’m not alone amongst the participants in thinking that the three days really provoked some much needed conversations – it put the elephants right into the centre of the room.
As the headline speaker on the final day of the Conference, one such elephant was probably my own experience with this complicated and often misunderstood topic of anti-doping. Readers might remember that back in 2015 the UK Government’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport investigated allegations made by The Sunday Times and German television station ARD
regarding so-called “suspicious blood values” relating to a number of athletes. Devastated by having my name incorrectly implicated, I sought the help of independent experts and appealed to WADA and the IAAF to help clear my name. The wheels turned agonizingly slowly but finally the IAAF officially exonerated me in September of that year, and UKAD and WADA agreed there was never any case to answer.
Though it’s now in the past, it was an extremely harrowing experience for my family and I, and one that I learnt many lessons from, including a very uncomfortable one: That the current anti-doping system is much better at proving when someone has doped than it is at helping clean athletes prove that they have not doped. It’s a small irony that a system with a singular mission to protect clean athletes does not have a tool to do just that. That has to change if we are to regain trust in a system which has been lacking athlete trust of late; athletes must use their growing voice to demand such a tool.
Radcliffe set the world record in winning 2003 London Marathon (Getty Images)
While we still need to see progress there, one such area that I believe we have progressed with of late is a perceptible shift in the athlete voice. While in the United States Professional Leagues the unionized culture has long lent itself to an all-powerful athlete voice, the Olympic sports world has lagged behind in this type of critical inclusion. Until now. It’s no coincidence that we’ve seen the arrival of the new athlete movement Global Athlete, for example, which gives a voice to competitors across a huge number of different sports and from many different countries feeling emboldened to speak up for changes to sport. The PCC gave a platform to that shift in athlete voice by (in stark contrast to the token approach we often see at other events) including athletes across all panels and all topics. This sent a clear message that athletes are an equal partner alongside scientists, lawyers, anti-doping experts, and researchers. That we are all on the same team. It was long overdue and heartening to see, and, I think, a refreshing sign of where things are headed.
If you look at the issues athletes are raising, there’s a real underlying theme that says “we want more of a say and we want to be seen as equals, alongside administrators”. You can see that in the German athletes’ hard won victory at their national Cartel Court against the IOC’s draconian ‘Rule 40’; a result which will give athletes, like myself and others the opportunity to tweet freely, to use terms such as ‘gold’ and ‘silver’ medal, and, in general, to express our personalities during our moment in the sun at an Olympic Games. It’s such an important issue. You can see it in swimming with Adam Peaty’s calls for his governing body to give swimmers a fairer share of the pie. And you can see it by the growing numbers of athletes that spoke up against WADA’s backsliding concerning the Russian reinstatement decision last year. Athletes putting their heads above the parapet is something we’re now seeing everywhere, and I personally think it’s a welcome sign of the times.
At a time when athletes are speaking up for their rights and for fair play, I think our community is craving, more than ever, effective leadership that can take clean sport movement forward. And we have that opportunity with the next WADA Presidency, that will be determined later this year. I think from speaking to many fellow athletes, we really feel that, with some of the “elephants in the room” now out in the open and being talked about, the time has come for some radical, freethinking athlete-led leadership that can help anti-doping emerge from this difficult chapter. I think we now have that, once in a generation, opportunity for change and it’s something we must all firmly grasp and get behind.
I think that this year’s PCC Conference was an important step in the right direction.
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