The D word

Drugs, an ugly word that accurately summarises the cause of the negative headlines athletics has recently had to endure. To take drugs is to besmirch and disrespect a sport we love and does more damage than simply depriving honest and clean athletes of medals, although this is bad enough. With all the stories in the press recently an outsider could be forgiven for believing that every top athlete cheats and, in this climate, how is athletics supposed to attract new talent? Clean athletes are in danger of falling into the trap of thinking they are condemned to always loosing if they don’t take drugs and therefore what is the point of trying? Lord Coe certainly has a battle on his hands getting a more positive message across to the public.

Yet the situation is far from hopeless and there are several steps that I believe should be taken to remove the stench of drugs and doping from our sport. This will probably lead to athletics going through a similar period of disrepute to cycling but I believe athletics can and will recover. The measures I suggest below all need to be carried out in tandem to have a significant effect.Drugs

In my opinion a crucial element to tackling the problem of drugs is education. In terms of educating athletes themselves, this should start from a very young age. Doping is wrong and as well as this youngsters should be taught the dangers of drug taking right from the start. A number of the blood test results published by the Sunday Times showed that the athletes should have been in hospital not running around a track and the reality that drug taking has medical, as well as moral and professional, risks needs to be communicated.

This education should be extended beyond the athletes themselves and done in schools and in the media. I believe that the danger of a drop in grassroots participation in athletics stems from a misunderstanding of the extent of doping. While not strictly libellous, the way the Sunday Times and other publications have presented the issue of drug taking makes it seem to the casual observer like everyone who has had an anomalous blood test result is a cheat. This is not the case – the list of athletes obtained by the Sunday Times is not a list of cheats! Anomalous blood test results can be caused for a variety of reasons including altitude and temperature and a few blood test results are far from conclusive proof of a cheat. While there are undoubtedly people who try to cheat their way to glory, I firmly believe that these people remain a small fraction of those who compete in athletics. I certainly do not believe that drug taking is any more prolific in athletics than in sports such as football. Although the media reporting of the issue could make you believe that these sports are clean, a recent study found abnormally high testosterone levels in the urine samples of 7.7% of the 879 football players tested ( If the public are made more aware of these facts then the loss of credibility in athletics should be markedly reduced.

Having said all of the above, it is clear that the IAAF and WADA could have done more in terms of testing to tackle the issue of drugs. Unfortunately, as the Panorama documentary showed, there is currently no test that can prove beyond doubt that an athlete is clean. The biological passport is a necessary part of the picture and the increased testing at the World Athletics Championships is an improvement but I still believe more has to be done. I believe that the IAAF and WADA need to work with regional bodies such as UK Athletics or Athletics Kenya to bring about a marked increase in random testing for doping. An athlete needs to know that at any time an official could request a blood or urine sample. Admittedly this would require a significant increase in staff and funding for athletics organisations but I believe it is necessary. A serious crackdown on drugs should help to rebuild confidence in the sport and without this crackdown the level of investment in athletics may well suffer. Sainsbury’s may have stated that its reasons for cutting short its sponsorship of British Athletics had nothing to do with drugs ( but I personally find this hard to believe.

Finally, and probably controversially, I am in favour of lifetime bans for those caught cheating. Athletes need to be taught that cheating does not pay off. If all that they are faced with if found guilty of cheating is a ban which may be reduced (Asafa Powell & Sherone Simpson have both had their doping bans reduced from 18 months to six months) then the rewards of cheating can be perceived as greater than the punishment. However, if it is a lifetime ban from competition that is handed out then this should persuade athletes that cheating is not worth the risk. This should also encourage young athletes. Justin Gatlin may have been overly demonised, he was far from the only drugs cheat competing at the Beijing World Championships, but I believe it is off putting to up and coming athletes to see drugs cheats such as him competing. He has suffered very few long term repercussions for his actions when you examine his overall career but if he had been banned for life the unacceptable nature of cheating would be far plainer. By allowing athletes such as Gatlin back into the sport I believe the message is sent out that cheating can have positive effects on your career with very few drawbacks, even if you are caught.

I am well aware that people are going to point to cases where it is not clear cut as to whether an athlete has intentionally cheated but I am not advocating a lifetime ban for everyone who has an abnormal test result. As said above, there are circumstances that can explain these and it would be up to the officials inside the IAAF or WADA to decide if mitigating circumstances exist. I am not saying this system would be perfect but I believe that a firm stance and severe punishments are necessary to rebuild trust in athletics. Drug taking is abhorrent and must be tackled and, in my opinion, no mercy should be shown to those who try to cheat their way to success.

I hope you have found this thought provoking!

See you next time,


Is Mo Farah Britain’s greatest athlete? Part 2

Hi everyone and welcome to the second instalment of my discussion about whether Mo Farah is worthy of Brendan Foster’s claim that he is Britain’s greatest athlete. I have decided this title should go to someone who currently holds a British Record otherwise they have been shown not to be the best Britain can produce. There are several people in this category who, in my opinion, challenge Farah’s claim to being the greatest. I am planning to compare them to Farah in terms of Olympic, World and European outdoor medals won, records broken and length of time at the top. Clearly these two blogs are assuming the absence of drugs in the careers of any of these athletes and I will tackle the issue of drug taking next week.

When drawing up my list of athletes to consider I came up with the following, the events in brackets are those for which they hold a British record: Paula Radcliffe (5,000m, 10,000m, half marathon, marathon), Jonathan Edwards (triple jump), Kelly Holmes (800m, 1,500m), Daley Thompson (decathlon), Sally Gunnell (400m hurdles), Sebastian Coe (800m), Jessica Ennis-Hill (heptathlon), Steve Cram (the mile), Greg Rutherford (long jump), Colin Jackson (110m hurdles), John Regis (200m) and Iwan Thomas (400m). Sadly the great Roger Bannister is not on this list. His achievement of breaking the four minute mile is one of the great milestones in athletics history but, in my opinion, his greatness lies in a different era of athletics, outside of the realms I believe Foster was thinking of when he made his comment. Bannister never won a medal at World or Olympic level and his World Record only stood for 46 days. His British record was beaten three years later by Derek Ibbotson.

If any athlete can be said to have surpassed Farah then I believe they have to have held both Olympic and World gold medals at some point in their careers because this achievement shows them to have truly been a world beater. This rule excludes Holmes, Coe, Cram, Jackson, Regis and Thomas. Radcliffe is also excluded, despite her World Record and four British records, because she failed to perform consistently throughout her career, never winning an Olympic medal. If you add the Commonwealth Games into the list of medals considered some of the other athletes have surpassed Farah. Only five British athletes have held Olympic, World, European and Commonwealth titles simultaneously –Thompson, Linford Christie (who was banned for drugs during his career), Gunnell, Edwards and Rutherford. However it cannot be denied that Farah is capable of winning Commonwealth gold.

My next category for analysis is in terms of records broken. All six remaining athletes hold a British record but only Edwards currently holds a World Record, which he has held since 1995. Thompson held the decathlon World Record intermittently 1980-1992 and Gunnell held the 400m hurdles World Record 1993-1995. However Ennis-Hill’s personal best is 336 points off the heptathlon World Record. Even if she set all of her personal bests in one competition she would still be 155 points off the record of 7291 points which has stood since 1988. Rutherford’s personal best is 44cm off the long jump World Record, a very large gap which encompassed the top eight athletes at the recent Beijing World Championships. In my opinion Ennis-Hill and Rutherford can be discounted from being named Britain’s greatest athlete because Farah, despite not setting a World Record, does top the leading times this year in the 10,000m. Ennis-Hill sits second in the heptathlon and Rutherford third in the long jump. These two athletes might be winning medals but they are not displaying the dominance currently shown by Farah.

Another area for consideration is how long an athlete was performing at the highest level. So far Farah’s gold medals have spanned the period 2010-2015. Thompson won his five gold medals 1980-1986, and Edwards won his four gold medals 1995-2001. However Gunnell won her three medals in just 1992-1994 and therefore failed to produce consistently top class performances for as long as the other three athletes.

This analysis has brought my decision down to Daley Thompson, Jonathan Edwards and Mo Farah. Farah has won more World, Olympic and European gold medals than the other two combined, although it must be remembered that he has the chance to win two gold medals per competition while Edwards and Thompson only had the chance of one. Edwards and Thompson have then both broken World Records during their careers which Farah has yet to do.

Choosing between these three giants of British athletics is not easy but it is my opinion that Jonathan Edwards is the worthy holder of the title Britain’s greatest athlete. This is largely due to the fact that he has held the triple jump World Record for an astonishing 20 years but is also due to his consistency, winning a medal in five consecutive World Championships (Daley Thompson only ever won one World Championships medal). Farah is a great athlete and may well become Britain’s greatest ever athlete but, in my opinion, he has to keep winning medals for another couple of years and get a bit closer to a World Record.

I am sure many of you will have your own opinions on this topic and I hope that this blog sparks some lively debates and discussions!

See you next week,


Is Mo Farah Britain’s greatest athlete?

Hi everyone and welcome to the next instalment of my sports blog!

Following the 5,000m at the Athletics World Championships last Saturday Brendan Foster, a former Olympic bronze medallist over 10,000m, declared Mo Farah Britain’s ‘greatest sportsman’. This claim elevates Farah beyond his sport and compares him to the like to Sir Steve Redgrave and Sir Chris Hoy. Farah is certainly a great sportsman but is he the greatest? I feel I lack sufficient experience in sports beyond athletics to truly assess Foster’s claim and therefore I just intend to consider if Farah is Britain’s greatest athlete, as he must be if he is to be in consideration as our ‘greatest sportsman’.

First of all, how is greatness to be measured? Greatness comes in many forms and athletes who are not multiple World or Olympic champions can still make claims to it through their actions outside of the sporting arena and the legacy they leave behind. Lord Sebastian Coe won two Olympic gold medals but his true greatness can be seen in his role in London 2012 and, hopefully, the impact he has as the new IAAF president. However, I believe that the greatness Foster was thinking of relates simply to success as an athlete in the form of medals, titles and records.

What then is Farah’s claim to being the greatest? The recent World Athletics Championships saw him become the first athlete to complete the distance ‘trMo Farahiple double’ (gold in the 5,000m and 10,000m at three successive World Championships or Olympics). This brought his gold medal haul up to five World Championship golds, two Olympic golds and five European golds. This surpasses the success any other British athlete has had in these three competitions, including greats such as Steve Cram and Colin Jackson. Indeed, Farah remains unbeaten on the track outdoors since finishing second in the 10,000m in Daegu at the 2011 World Championships. Furthermore, Farah holds the British record at 1,500m, 5,000m, 10,000m and half marathon.

This is a very impressive list of achievements and nothing should be taken away from it. Nonetheless, Daley Thompson, former decathlete with five Olympic, World and European golds to his name, is right to point out that Farah has yet to break a World Record. Farah sits 9th on the all time list for 1,500m and 16th for 10,000m but doesn’t even make the top 30 for 5,000m. In 1,500m he is 2.81s off the record while in 5,000m this is 14.2s and in 10,000m 29.04s. This might not sound like much but at the top end of athletics these time gaps are significant. In the 10,000m final at Beijing 2015 the top five athletes were all within 8s of each other.

Despite this, Farah’s achievements are still amazing. Distance races are tactical and in order to break a World Record you need someone else to push you along and essentially pace you to it. At the moment Farah could be seen as simply lacking the opponents necessary to push him to his maximum and achieve that World Record. He tops the best times this year in the 10,000m and his 5,000m pb is five seconds clear of the best time this year, although Farah did set his pb in 2011. It could be argued that you can only race the people around you and here Farah is clearly excelling.

However, before labelling him the greatest British athlete ever, the contenders for this title must be considered. I will start doing this in my next blog so I hope that you look forward to reading that!

Hopefully see you then,