Paula Radcliffe is a victim of our hypocrisy and confusion about drugs and sport

The London marathon winner’s clash with Tory MP Jesse Norman is symptomatic of a debate that both shames and risks the health of athletes

19 September 2015

8:00 AM

19 September 2015

8:00 AM

Do you want to see Paula Radcliffe’s blood? If so, you’re not alone. Radcliffe, three-time winner of the London Marathon has been outed as a drugs cheat by the Tory MP Jesse Norman. No proof, but proof is for wimps. Radcliffe’s name will now always have a certain stink.

Norman used parliamentary privilege to talk about ‘the winners or medallists at the London Marathon, potentially British athletes… under suspicion for very high levels of blood doping.’ That was enough to tar Radcliffe as a possible druggie. It’s like accusing a public figure of paedophilia: the softest whisper will do for them.

Pressure has been brought on Radcliffe to go public with her ‘blood values’ — complex medical data — but she has refused, on the legitimate grounds that no one bar a few experts has the slightest idea what they mean.

Radcliffe is the second major British athletics love-object to get the treatment this year. Earlier it was Mo Farah, double Olympic gold-medal winner in London in 2012. A Panorama programme claimed that his coach, Alberto Salazar, had done some dodgy stuff. Nothing that involves Farah, but the whisper is enough. Farah is now forever tainted. Both have denied any wrongdoing; fat lot of good that will do.

The problem of drugs in sport is that it’s two issues in one. The public and, by extension, the journalistic view is that either you take drugs and you’re evil, or you don’t take drugs and you’re a good guy — at least until you get caught. It’s a straightforward business, one that permits no doubt or ambiguity.

The truth is complex and difficult — and routinely avoided. Many top-level sports-people use drugs every day. They couldn’t perform without them. They often take these drugs knowing that their use could compromise their future health. These drugs are not only legal, but those who take them are more likely to be praised than blamed. ‘Playing through the pain.’ It’s part of sport’s mystique.

Many painkillers and anti-inflammatories are permitted in sport. The Fifa chief medical officer Dr Jiri Dvorak said half the international footballers would take painkillers before every match. You can buy ibuprofen and aspirin over the counter; you can get diclofenac and naproxen on prescription. And play sport without a problem.

You can’t do that if you’re a horse. Painkillers and anti-inflammatories are banned in the equestrian sports. Danilon — an anti-inflammatory I serve to an aged Shetland pony every other day — is illegal in competition. That’s because when under extreme stresses a horse can damage itself if unaware of pain — and it’s axiomatic that the welfare of the horse comes first. The welfare of the human athlete clearly doesn’t, as many a limping ex-pro can tell you.

When is a drug not a drug? You can take certain banned substances if you have a ‘therapeutic use exemption’: so you can have a good pull on your asthma puffer before the race. Then there are dietary supplements. These sound OK but have been known to contain banned substances. Athletes are warned not to believe any label that says ‘Safe for sports people’ or ‘Approved by Wada’, the World Anti-Doping Agency. But accidents happen in this shadowy territory that lies between nutrition and drugs.

Drugs banned in sport include anabolic steroids, certain peptide hormones, stimulants, diuretics, narcotics and beta-blockers. It’s also illegal to improve your oxygen carrying capacity by a pre-race transfusion of your own blood. Small wonder the drug testers are lagging behind the cheats. Roughly speaking, drugs that help you do it better are evil, but drugs that stop you doing it worse are fine. Unless, of course, you’re a horse.

We are prepared — eager — to make villains of those on whom the lightest finger of suspicion alights. Christine Ohuruogu, the British runner, was banned after missing three out-of-competition drugs tests. This always looked like dodgy diary-keeping rather than systematic drugs use. But it prompted an arguably racist campaign in the Sun. Referring to the forthcoming London Olympic Games, the paper said: ‘We can’t let Ohuruogu be the face of 2012.’

It’s accepted that doping is a sin far worse than mere cheating. It’s not like a false start, diving in the penalty area or not walking when you’ve edged the ball. It’s considered destructive not of the event but of the entire sport: perhaps of the whole idea of sport.

The issue of drugs in sport is a classic example of what happens when a complex matter is treated as a simple one. We now judge it by means of nursery morality, while the humanity of all those involved has got lost. It’s as irrational and as crazy as sport itself: but without any of the joy.

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  • Random Punter

    Personally, when it comes to sport, I’d rather see two tiers; the first being absolutely removed from high-tech clothing or any sort of drugs but just the peak of human achievement without such aids in a spirit of pure sportsmanship. The second would be an Open Category where everything would be allowed; every steroid, drug, technological advancement poured out as human beings treated like canvas on which biotechnology paints.

    That would be far more interesting than the current mish-mash we have.

    • Disgruntledgoat

      And why would any sponsor pay to be associated with the “cheat games”? Why would anyone let their child compete in that category. The whole premise of anti doping is to ensure that young people aren’t forced into a situation where they are offered the choice of ruining their long term health or throwing away years of work and dedication and finding another job.

      • NorthernFirst

        “And why would any sponsor pay to be associated with the “cheat games”? ”

        To show off their cutting edge technology perhaps?

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  • WFB56

    Jesse Norman should be forced to put up or shut up and not hide behind parliamentary privilege to tarnish the reputations of Radcliffe or others.

    • The Hoxton Hockler

      Yes that. Or Radcliffe is a drug cheat too.

      • WFB56

        If she is, and Norman can prove it, why did he use the privilege of the House of Commons protections? His actions are no better than that of the Twitter mobs.

    • Well said. Norman is a complete …..

  • Gilbert White

    Brilliant leftie type obfuscation we cannot fight this with mere words!

  • racingfan99

    A week later the dust is now settling down from the
    ridiculous NON-STORY of last week, so what have we really learned about the

    Firstly and most concerning was just how lacking in the very
    base knowledge the journalists and TV reporters/presenter knew about the
    subject, the sport and the athlete. They seemed to be fundamentally clueless
    about what rigorous investigative procedures had been carried out at the time
    of the ‘off’ tests so many years ago. All done as an anonymous blood sample
    without any name provided and investigated fully by 2 or 3 different
    anti-doping agencies in context with any circumstances and information that
    could be factors for any ‘off’ scores. After that they then concluded there was
    no case to answer at all. In no way could the procedure be described as a cover
    up. These are cutting edge scientist and medical professionals who are fully
    conversant with the understanding of the human body, infinitely more qualified
    and capable of making a fully informed decision that the news hacks who were
    itching for a “trial by media” headline.

    These hacks were crying out for her blood data scores and
    accused her of lack of transparency, showed just how ill-informed they were on
    the subject they were covering, even the BBC’s own reporters were appalling!
    Dan Roan had to apologize to her for publishing wrong facts that made the story
    look worse and Sally Nugent even suggested she ‘didn’t have the bottle’ to
    release her scores! They seemed totally unaware the RELEVANT people had already
    seen and fully investigated her scores, so the correct people had the
    information. Paula’s stance of not releasing her stats was simply because she
    was adhering to and acting in accordance with policy and advice of all the
    anti-doping organisations around the world who recommend NOT making the scores
    public. In part because they are too complicated for unqualified people to
    understand, especially without any context to how/when/where, all which is
    important……but maybe not as tasty a headline as just a high score without any

    As a result of the treatment Paula got last week by the ignorant
    and arrogant mass media, unsurprisingly now current athletes like Eilidh Childs
    have already said they would never want to release their blood data for
    analysis by the media after the amateurish and haphazard understanding has been
    demonstrated by people who deem themselves capable of been judge and jury of a
    topic they clearly knew little about.

    Just a word about Paula for those saying she’s just another
    Lance Armstrong. Polar opposites in every way. He was an extremely cocky and
    arrogant individual, he played legal hardball with any accuser using aggressive
    lawyers and bullyboy tactics, when there was too much evidence against him at
    the end and fellow competitors sworn testimony he chose to announce his global
    deceit on the world’s biggest TV show and has since returned to France and
    ridden parts of the Tour de France route seemingly expecting a hero’s
    welcome…and no shame at all from the man. Paula is the total opposite situation
    and other than dumbed down media there has never been a single accuser of
    calling her a cheat. Indeed we only keep hearing how all former and current
    athletes all believe wholeheartedly she was an honest athlete. She has also
    been consistently outspoken on her views about cheats in athletics, she was
    very keen on moving towards blood data use years ago and insisted on been
    tested and having samples stored. Even when competing she kept her eye on the
    grass roots athletes coming through and even today she is mentoring and
    training a few up and coming talents. As a commentator and pundit she is
    insightful and very astute in her predictions of races and her observations
    towards athletes running styles making her punditry interesting and often witty
    alongside Steve and Brendan. Shame on the BBC for treating her so badly last
    week I say. She is also keen to stay involved in athletics and getting people
    running and she has already expressed serious interest in tackling the cheating
    aspect of the sport even further now she has retired. Her knowledge and
    experience as well as her excellent reputation would be a real benefit to track
    and field.

    Second thing people
    maybe got to understand last week was that the days of black and white test
    results with a revved up athlete with anabolic steroid are a thing of the past.
    It is a minefield! Blood doping and blood passports are definitely the way
    forwards compared to a urine test. Infinitely more information can be
    discovered from blood and it is the best way to clean up athletics. It is
    highly sophisticated and cutting edge which also means expensive; and athletics
    is one of the poorer sports compared to the huge finances available to
    football, tennis, Formula1 and such like. So where can the funds come from????
    Seb Coe will have to do some thinking there.

    Thirdly, I’m not condoning cheating in athletics in any way
    but have been surprised at the amount of focus for this minority sport. We see
    footballers falling down in High Definition, feigning injury every 5 minutes in
    a match, cheating to get favourable outcomes. Ball tampering in cricket,
    suspicious betting in snooker and racing, erroneous looking parts on certain F1
    cars…..all sports, like society is always going to have some who will want to
    operate outside the rules. Why is athletics getting so much attention when it
    seems accepted more in other sports and a blind eye is turned?

    • Well said. The grandstanding off the cuff remark by Norman is a total disgrace. I can’t say here what I really think of him because it would be deleted by the profanity system. I did say what I thought on a blog.


  • rtj1211

    Sooner or later the question of gene doping will come up. It’s an interesting piece of moral hazard, Mr Barnes. It goes something like this: it’s been determined that the tribesmen of the Masai have a pretty common gene variant that makes them seriously good middle-long distance runners. Scientists have compared the sequence of their DNA to that of those from, say, the UK and identified the key sequences that gives the sporting advantage.

    So, in this day and age, folks know enough about how to produce proteins in muscle to consider injecting DNA which will make the relevant protein variants in their muscles, so their muscles will become more like Kenyan muscles.

    Now is this cheating or merely replicating what God gave some Kenyans? I mean, why should heroism in athletics now be about who gave birth to you where in the world? Wasn’t it supposed to be about hard work, training to achieve goals and all that. The Kenyans are well on the way to being ‘designer babies’, just created naturally of course, but bred in special superior genetic stock. What’s a poor hard working, say, Brit, to do if the only way to compete is either to take EPO or to inject a gene therapy intramuscularly? I guess the honest answer is ‘give up and do something else…..’

    I’m 100% sure that the injector will be banned for life, but it is a question, isn’t it, when sport becomes so evolved that actually you have no chance of competing at the top level without certain genetic constellations……..

    Same with fast twitch muscles for sprinters – you could know at birth whether your child had any chance of being a good sprinter or not…….probably all kinds of other things as well………

    • martivickers

      It’s not the Masai, it’s the Kalenjin tribe, and it is specifically linked to a combination of weight balance in the legs and altitude – nature + nurture.
      For what it’s worth, artificial breeding and gene doping is already outlawed in horsey events – the idea of it’s unfairness is already accepted. But some sub populations are, on average, just better at some events – some for genetic reasons, some for cultural. Maybe GB – who, lest we forget, currently has the dominant male endurance runner of the era, and a Scandinavian looking world record holder in the women’s marathon, both of whom are certainly neither Kenyan nor Kalenjin – should just be grateful its interesting racial mix and diversity – and relative wealth and sporting culture – seems to give it supply of natural talent in a wider range of sports than almost anyone bar USA.

    • Sean L

      The Kenyan distance runners are Kalenjin not Masai.

  • Jack Rocks

    I have a simple solution to this problem: Ban sponsorship or payment (except expenses) of athletes.

    Money has corrupted Sport, as it corrupts everything.

    • martivickers

      Never mind that the single worst doping regime in athletics, East Germany, took place in the Amateur days….

      • Jack Rocks

        So? If people are obviously doping, either ban them from competing or don’t compete yourself.

        You’re not losing your income by doing so are you. So why do you care?

        • martivickers

          Your argument was based on a premise that was verifiably false. I verified that falseness.
          My point was simple. Your solution is not a simple solution; in fact it’s no solution at all.
          Among other things, anti-doping requires funding. Lots of it. There is in fact a significant argument for working to INCREASE revenues, so that a larger portion might be diverted to anti-doping.

    • racingfan99

      yes EVERY sport….why is it only athletics the media focus on I wonder?

  • red2black

    Spectators are seldom, if ever, mentioned with regard to drugs in sport.
    Being a Doncaster Rovers supporter, my preference is for anti-depressants, to which, I fear, I’m addicted.

    • The Hoxton Hockler

      Supporting Donny rovers is a great preparation for life in Tory Britain. Constant disappointment at an inflated price.

      • red2black

        Only a bit of fun. I’ve only seem them a handful of times over many years. A couple of my mates are genuine fans, and after a home game there’s usually an inquest and a wake in the local pub.

  • balance_and_reason

    I think this conversation line shows that the only solution is to allow all doping…free for all …then we have no surprises…just better and more extreme exercise, doping and genetic tweaking regimes……what’s not to like…show biz innit?

  • PeteTongue

    This parliamentary privilege thing for the uppity classes exchanging information amongst themselves without interference from the publicans, does that still work in this twitter day and age?

  • Sten vs Bren

    “Pressure has been brought on Radcliffe to go public with her ‘blood
    values’ — complex medical data — but she has refused, on the legitimate
    grounds that no one bar a few experts has the slightest idea what they

    Solution; have her release her blood values to experts.

    • Disgruntledgoat

      She already has to as part of the WADA code and biological passport programme that the IAAF signs up to. It just isn’t public, as I’m sure you’re happy your personal medical records aren’t

    • racingfan99

      She had already had her anonymous blood samples thoroughly investigated by experts and they said there was no case to answer at all. There isn’t an opt out clause for competing athletes.

    • NorthernFirst

      You think the samples were taken and then put into storage?

      • racingfan99

        Couldn’t say for definite but it was what Paula was certainly pushing for within the sport at the time.

  • Paul Eastaugh

    Why is it that we have to go to experts for an understanding of ‘blood values’? I am fairly sure that with a proper dataset most people with some judgement and a little knowledge could understand the data. It is another easy get out to say that only experts are in a position to make a judgement.

    The public need to be given more credibility, and it is after all they who ultimately as paying for athletes.

    • racingfan99

      Not sure why we bother training scientists and having medical courses taking years….we should let you do all these complicated surgeries in your kitchen! You’d save us all millions now you’ve exposed the myth

    • martivickers

      Your certainty in the wisdom of the public is not in fact born out by reality. There is ample evidence of the broad inability of the public, or indeed non-statistically trained scientists, to properly and accurately deal with probabilities and statistics – an inability that led to numerous miscarriages of justice over the years (see prosecutor’s fallacy, for example and the Meadows cases).
      Indeed, we’ve already seen it in this case where the ‘experts’ described one of the alleged Radcliffe ‘spikes’ as a less than 1 in a 1000 chance of being ‘natural’ – only for the actually number, when released to be much, much less than that (around 1 in 100, not even factoring in altitude) – now if some of the world’s best blood data experts (and Ashenden is certainly one of those) can screw up a key stat – what chance does Joe Soap have?
      The reality is the numbers WILL be leapt on,as is already the case with the cycling subculture, by a minor cynics army declaring their certainty of foul play based on, frankly, little more than initial cynicism and biases. and while that’s fine at the bottom of some obscure forum, it’s not the way to run a sport.

      • The Internet is full of ranting demagogues who think they know all, but rarely know anything at all. Mostly, like the imbecile you are replying to, they can barely wait to get their teeth into someone and start a twitter tsunami about their foul play, or bad character, or whatever other scandal the generally anonymous bullies and trolls have got hold of in their retarded way.

        • racingfan99

          I’ve just spent some time working out the differences in athletics performance between men and womens records, which is consistently about 10% in every running event and around 15% in the jumping events (different weights of jav, shot, discus meant I didn’t bother with throwing events).

          If Paula’s times are ignored then the womens marathon time is the worst record to compare and yet we all know the marathon for women has been the biggest improvement because it is only recent history that they have been allowed to compete in the long distances. So Paula’s time of 2.15 simply keeps the % range consistent – nothing more. its a fantastic time and she has previously said there were days when she felt even better than that day but there was no race to run in! But as good as her time is it isn’t a ‘spike’ that closes the gap between men and women to less than any other event.
          Interesting to also see that on average since 1970 mens words records have come down accross all events by around 5% and womens have improved by 12% in the last 45 years.

    • NorthernFirst


      See the climate change “controversy”.

    • Total nonsense. Part of the problem is in understanding how different circumstances can create anomalies. Two of the ‘odd’ samples given by Radcliff several years ago were taken in circumstances now outlawed because those circumstances alter the blood parameters. She gave blood twice IMMEDIATELY after half marathon races. You can’t count that kind of blood now, because it is well understood that dehydration immediately following a hard distance race will elevate haemoglobin levels until hydration levels are restored. ‘Some judgement and a little knowledge’, as advocated by you is a far from adequate basis upon which to judge the honesty of an athlete. Your recommendation is extremely stupid in my view.

  • right1_left1

    quote: The issue of drugs in sport
    (or anything controversial you care to name )
    is a classic example of what happens when a complex matter is treated as a simple one.

    In truth this quote is a classic example of the acceptable or devious obfuscation employed when unfortunate facts may need to be hidden..

  • mrsjosephinehydehartley

    I think Paula is quite right to mind her own business under these circumstances.

  • mrsjosephinehydehartley

    I’m not sure whether pretentious language such as the word “potentially” used by M.P Norman on this occasion is by extension, strictly a matter of Parliamentary privilege.

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  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Take nationalism out of sport and there would be less motivation to slander the athletes of other nations.

    • Labour Mole Catcher

      You really are a stupid little wannabe Communist, aren’t you?!

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Time for my daily dose of looney bashing:
        “Let racist ignorance be ended
        For respect makes the empires fall
        Freedom is merely privilege extended
        Unless enjoyed by one and all”

        • Kennybhoy

          I prefer the original lyrics. 🙂

          • Labour Mole Catcher

            En français.

        • Labour Mole Catcher

          From someone who lives in Japan with an Emperor as the head of state?!

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Drugs in sport? International rally drivers and navigators are 100%. That’s 100% on stay-awake drugs. You try staying awake and alert for three days and thee nights.

    • Labour Mole Catcher

      Are you talking about being a “driver” so-called in computer games?!

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Terrible thing, envy. Effects have-not losers their whole life. Your problem, right Jock?

        • Labour Mole Catcher

          Envious of being Billy-no-mates in the Bank of Mum and Dad permanently, quite possibly already in my early 40s?!

  • kingkevin3

    This is a very naieve attitude. Undoubtedly 4 years ago this idiot was saying the same thing about Armstrong. It’s politically incorrect to say Bolt is and has been using drugs for years. You don’t have to be a genius to work it out. And I dare say the lady above does too. Unfortunately you just have to look at the times. Very simple really. And no in this case there is no assumption of innocence. Quite the reverse. When you know the Chinese and Russians are doing it and they can’t get close to her it’s pretty damn obvious.