Blood doping in sport: guilty until proven innocent

By Kieran Moriarty paula

Between the period of 1950-1956, America descended into a state of nationwide paranoia. Fears of communist infiltration and Soviet espionage dominated the country’s political landscape and the period came to be defined by the ardent anti-Communist Joseph McCarthy. The Wisconsin senator is remembered for his numerous allegations that thousands of Communist spies were living in America. Thus the term ‘McCarthyism’ was born, defined as making accusations of subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence as well as “making unfair allegations or using unfair investigative techniques, especially in order to restrict dissent or political criticism”, according to

In general modern usage, the term now refers to the process of making unsubstantiated and often defamatory accusations against someone. Following recent blood doping allegations made against top British athletes, one could argue that the components of ‘McCarthyism’ survive today, albeit without the historical context.

Pardon the pun but blood-doping is the ‘Red Scare’ of international sport. Both cycling and athletics have seen the credibility of their respective sports eroded by the relentless stream of allegations made against their athletes. Any athlete that wins their event by a convincing margin immediately finds themselves susceptible to the whispers that they must be doping. Although the ruling organisations of these sports are trying to clean up their sports, they consequently have created an unpleasant atmosphere where sportspeople are not being celebrated for their achievements but are instead scrutinised.

This summer, Chris Froome stormed to his second Tour De France victory, a victory that was secured in his obliteration of his rivals in the Alpine stages. When once we would have marvelled at such a performance, these days we immediately question their integrity and demand the necessary data to forensically pore over and absolve the athlete of doping. The spectre of Lance Armstrong haunts cycling and has led to this ‘McCarthyism’ culture that any one that performs well must be accused of cheating.

Froome’s victory this year was tainted by this persistent cloud of suspicion hanging over him in the latter stages. Although he is perhaps not the easiest athlete to like due to suggestions that he is too ‘robotic’, it is sad to see that his achievement has been dragged through the mud and that doubters still remain, despite Team Sky releasing the appropriate data to silence the critics.

What Froome did in the Alpine stages was superhuman and some of his data is abnormal. Yet to automatically label someone a doper for a great performance signals a depressing precedent for modern sport. In Froome’s case, the allegations became personal attacks. People are right to ask questions considering the past, but they must do so in a measured way. It cannot be a witch-hunt. They must bear in mind that once the allegation of doping has been made, clean or not, the stain remains for that athlete’s whole career and the rest of their life.

This is what has been seen in the most recent allegation of blood doping in sport, levelled at British marathon gold medallist and London Marathon world-record holder Paula Radcliffe. As part of the fallout from The Sunday Times ongoing exposé, there has always been rumours that Radcliffe was the high-profile successful unnamed British athlete they referred to.

This speculation was ended by the Chairman of the Commons select committee on culture, media and sport, Jesse Norman, at an MP’s hearing into doping in athletics, who asked David Kenworthy, chairman of the UK’s national anti-doping agency, “When you hear that the London Marathon, winners or medallists of the London Marathon, British athletes, are under suspicion for very high levels of blood doping… how do you feel about that?”. There are no prizes for guessing who he was referring to.

Radcliffe’s world record at the London Marathon in 2003 was 2:15:25, nearly three minutes ahead of any other competitor. In a sport where seconds can represent huge margins, this is staggering. Unlike Froome, Radcliffe has refused to release relevant data, a dangerous move in this hysterical climate.

However, considering that she has been an athlete that has continuously campaigned against doping, openly vented her frustration at the leniency shown towards convicted dopers that she has been competing against, and her instantaneous response to these allegations in the form of a 1,700-word statement, it is sad to see this great athlete’s reputation seemingly falling apart on the account of one spurious that has now received global coverage. Despite all of the glory, this is a woman who has endured some terrible disappointments and setbacks. Yet these now pale in comparison compared to implication in this scandal.

Froome, Radcliffe and many others now find themselves not being discussed in terms of their great achievements but instead involved in conversations featuring deplorable, convicted cheaters like Lance Armstrong and Justin Gatlin. Innocent or guilty, the damage has been done. The rest of their careers and lives are now a fight to restore their reputations, even if they have done nothing wrong. Of course, more evidence could come to light that does condemn them to have been doping, which would be catastrophic for their respective sports and heartbreaking for sports fans. Yet that is too terrible to even bear thinking about.

As a sports journalist, it saddens me to see this ‘McCarthyism’ attitude prevalent within sport and tarnishing the achievements that make sport a joy to watch. Doping must be eradicated from sport but not at the expense of the reputations of athletes whose only crime has been to be the best.

Photograph: Ed Costello via Wikimedia Commons

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