The difference between running, the sport of running and the business of running

Screen Shot 2016-01-10 at 18.29.10I saw a tweet today from Mara Yamauchi:

Feeling the need to remember, at the end of the day, running is a fab sport – simple, fun, inexpensive, exhilarating, natural, sociable..:)

And I think that hidden in that simple phrase is a very important message. Like so many other people who have a love of running and an investment in the sport – whether that is as an athlete or coach or manager – Mara has been lamenting the corruption in the IAAF that has meant that people have cheated and lied and bribed IAAF officials to cover up positive doping tests. Mara herself has been cheated out of moments of glory (and probably less importantly financial gains) by dopers.

But running is not the professional sport of running or the business side of the sport. In the same way that kids kicking a ball around in an impromptu game of football are not part of the game that pays people millions of pounds a week and tolerates their puerile bad behaviour. They are observers of that sport. But their game is for pure enjoyment.

That is what I feel about running. The vast majority of people who run do so for the love of it. Because they like the feeling. Because they want to be fit. Because they enjoy competing – most often against themselves and the clock.

So let’s all remember; the money-grabbing, cheating, lying athletes and officials who have destroyed any facade that athletics is a pure and honorable sport have nothing to do with you and I pulling on our trainers and going for a run. The Olympics will probably never recover from the doping scandals now being uncovered and future great performances at the edge of what we think is possible will almost always be suspected of benefiting from PEDs. But there’s not much we can do about that. Cheats will always cheat. Runners – pure, unadulterated, honest runners… well they will just always run. Thank goodness.

Avoiding a doping problem in marathon running? Might be too late.

I just read an astonishing – and very disappointing – statistic relating to elite level marathon runners:

Thirty-six Kenyans have been confirmed as failing [performance enhancing drug] tests in the past two years.

And probably the saddest thing is that I’m not at all surprised. The reasons why doping is almost certainly endemic in the heartland of endurance running are well understood and follow a pattern that, without a dramatic re-think by the authorities, will almost certainly be repeated over and over again. The pattern is something like this:

  1. A sport increases in popularity
  2. Brands recognise that people (their potential customers) are watching and/or participating in the sport in increasing numbers and they want to get involved, in the case of endurance sports by sponsoring races and athletes
  3. Races compete to offer bigger prize pots to attract better runners so they get more sponsorship
  4. As a result of more money – both in terms of sponsorship and prize money – athletes find that there is more and more competition at the top
  5. Athletes start assuming that the people who are winning the big prizes are doping, therefore they need to start doping in order to compete
  6. … Et viola! You have professional cycling in the ‘1990s and early 2000’s
Rita Jeptoo. Winner and cheat.
Rita Jeptoo. Winner and cheat.

I recognise that this is massively over-simplified, but a slide towards systematic doping like this is well recorded. And if you factor in that running is a sport in which there are few barriers to entry, then athletes from places like Kenya have an even greater incentive to win ever more competitive races. To put that in context, it is worth knowing a few facts about Kenya:

  • The per-capita GDP is $1,137 (compare that to the UK where the figure is $40,000)
  • Unemployment is around 40% (in the UK it is 6%)
  • 45% of the population of Kenya is below the poverty line

Winning the London Marathon nets $55,000. If the race is won in under 2:05 there is a $100,000 bonus and if the runner breaks the course record into the bargain, there is another $25,000. That could mean a winning prize of $180,000. Not bad if you come from a subsistence farm in rural Kenya. Oh and of course by winning the London, the athlete has quite a bit of additional sponsorship to factor in.

The point I am rather ham-fistedly trying to make is that there is a very strong motive for athletes – especially from poor places like east Africa – to win a relatively small number of races that have life-changing prize pots. In this environment, with so many people aiming for the same prizes, it is understandable that people will take whatever measures they deem necessary to win. And they can always justify those means by assuming that everyone else is using nefarious means.

There are a couple of other factors that point towards widespread doping in endurance sports in east Africa being probable:

  • In Kenya there is practically no out-of-competition testing which means that the chances of being caught are minimal (at least that used to be the case, but perhaps that is changing)
  • The brands are not motivated to ensure that their athletes are not doping. Apart from the embarrassment there is no real penalty for the brands if their athletes dope and if they are caught the brands simply deny knowledge and distance themselves. However being associated with winners is very good for the brands
  • The national federations are not motivated to stamp out doping – they want winners: it is good for national pride, national income and raises the profile of the country on a national scale
  • Coaches and agents are not directly penalised if their athletes are caught doping. Certainly their reputation suffers, but they are rarely in the limelight – after all who knows who Lance Armstrong’s agent was? – and they earn money from their athletes winning stuff, so they are at the very least motivated to turn a blind eye

So there you have it – the reason I am not surprised that there are so many runners in east Africa being caught doping is that I think there are many, many reasons why athletes would dope and very few why they wouldn’t.

The answer? Well if I knew that I would be the head of WADA (the World Anti Doping Agency). But I do tend to think that much, much stiffer penalties would help. For a start I think that if runners knew that they faced a lifetime ban from all competition in all sports for any doping offense, they might think twice. Warren Gatland – the sprinter banned TWICE for doping violations is testament to how ineffectual short bans are – he spent the time he was banned ‘getting faster’ (read into that what you will) and came back after a few months away, quicker than ever, winning hundreds of thousands of dollars in Diamond League outings this year.

I would also take a Mafia approach and go after everyone associated with the cheats – their coaches, agents and doctors would all face lengthy, if not permanent, bans. National federations would face huge fines (in fact I would make them responsible for repaying the cheat’s lifetime winnings). Brands would be fined for sponsoring cheats.

That all sounds a bit heavy handed. But it might start to make the people who are currently uninterested in stopping their athletes from doping, have a strong incentive to make sure their athletes clean. And the athletes themselves would know that one slip would result in no sports career whatsoever for the rest of their lives.

I expect there are a myriad reasons this is not fair and not practical. But it is all I have got. If you have any suggestions, I’m sure WADA would love to hear them!

Athletics’ sponsors and their responsibility regarding doping in athletics

I love running – doing it, thinking about it, working with companies involved in it, watching it. What I hate is the increasingly obvious problem we have with doping. I have chosen my words carefully here – increasingly obvious vs. increasing – because I don’t know that doping has not always been rife, it is just that in fits and starts we keep finding out that people we as athletics fans, venerated and looked up to, have been cheating.

Doping – an age-old problem

Turn our backs on doping
Turn our backs on doping

I recently read a book called Running with Fire: The True Story of Chariots of Fire Hero Harold Abrahams, all about the man who became the British 100m champion in 1924 and went on to be a great rival to Eric Liddell, the man about whom Chariots of Fire was written. In this book, the contradictions between the morals of sport and the use of drugs are laid bare and it is shocking to realise that in the 1920s, at the zenith of the amateur code, athletes as high profile as Abrahams, who would go on to become a hugely influential administrator in, and shaper of, athletics in the UK, would regularly take stimulants to improve performance.

So I am writing this from the point of view that drugs in sport are wrong but also acknowledging that they are also a deep-rooted part of how athletes try to get one up on their rivals.

Why doping is wrong – in my opinion

Before I go any further, I would like to offer my thoughts on whether or not drugs should be allowed. In summary, because to go into detail here would take too much time, the reasons I think that drugs cannot be allowed include the following:

  • the unrestricted use of drugs will end up severely damaging and killing athletes who go too far and take too much. That cannot be allowed to be part of a public spectacle
  • taking drugs does not allow us to witness and celebrate what can be achieved purely through hard work and commitment – things that people today really lack
  • doping makes sport unequal – those with the most money and the best connections will get the most dope, thereby excluding less well connected / wealthy athletes from competing
  • I hate all the bullshit – if an athlete professes to be clean and then it turns out that they were not, it feels like such a betrayal. I recently wrote an article for a website that I contribute to all about how Tyson Gay could be the man to take on the seemingly unbeatable Usain Bolt and I feel like an idiot for writing that – Gay was cheating all along
  • cheats make it very difficult, if not impossible, to believe that everyone else is not cheating. Can you honestly tell me that there is anyone in the world who reads about, or watches, the Tour de France and doesn’t assume that they are all doping, after the huge list of cyclists who have all been caught cheating?

So if we accept, that the use of drugs cannot be tolerated, then what to do about it? Well, there is a brilliant article by Steve Magness on Science of Running with a few great suggestions and an over-arching theme that I completely agree with – whilst trying to deal with the athletes, it is also important to focus on the other people and organisations involved.

Target the brands

Magness’ article looks extensively at the entourage around athletes and particularly on the way that targeting coaches could help to solve the problem. But I want to ask whether it is also time to deal with the sponsors. After all, I think that the reason athletes cheat, is fundamentally about money and the money comes from the brands whose logos appear on the athletes’ chests.

We now live in a world of professional sport and that means that the athletes at the top of their games earn well from doing what they do. Tyson Gay has a sponsorship deal with adidas, Omega SA, McDonald’s and Sega worth $4 million per year.

Usain Bolt’s deal with Puma is reportedly worth $32m over four years – that is before he adds other, non-sports related deals to the pot. Even Mo Farah – who doesn’t compete in a blue-ribband event – has a £500,000 deal with Virgin Media after his success at the London Olympic Games.

So with that sort of money on offer, is it any wonder that athletes are tempted to dope? A little pill here, a small infusion of blood there and suddenly as a 30 year old, you are richer than your wildest dreams.

And the brands are not at all innocent bystanders here. They are in competition with one another – Nike, adidas and now – thanks to Bolt – Puma, all want to see their logo-emblazoned athletes on the podium at major events. So do they turn a blind eye? Well, at the very least the brands take a position of ‘innocent bystander’ when one of their athletes gets caught. But there must be huge pressure from those in charge of the relationships with the athletes for them to perform and if a coach seems to be getting particularly good results, the brands will often ‘suggest’ that an athlete joins that group.

Making the brands responsible

My issue here is that the brands do not have ‘skin in the game’. For them, having an athlete caught doping is, at worst, embarrassing. But they can quickly distance themselves from the cheat and simply focus their attention on another ‘clean’ athlete in their stable and trot out some trite words from their corporate social responsibility report. After all, the brands are in the business of selling shoes and apparel to kids and those ‘consumers’ quickly forgive and forget, so there is no real penalty.

So I think that the brands should have ‘skin in the game’. If a brand wants to sponsor an athlete, that is fine – the value and conditions of the sponsorship deal should be disclosed (then we would have some sense of the pressure the athletes are under to perform) and the same amount of cash should be put into an escrow account. Five years after the athlete has retired, with a completely clean record, then the money is released back to the brand. If, however, the athlete is caught doping at any point during or in the five years after their career, then the money is used by WADA to fund an anti-drugs programme. The brand will have suddenly lost double the money it invested in the athlete (unless it can claw back some of the cash from the doper).

I also think that if a brand is associated with more than a certain number of drug cheats then its logo should be banned from international competition for a period of time… can you imagine, no swoosh or three stripes at any international athletics event for several months after a number of their sponsored athletes were caught doping?

Final thoughts (and I am no expert!)

I know I am not an expert in these things and I am slightly writing this post in anger, but I think that something has to be done. Targeting athletes does not work: they end up in the hands of manipulative coaches, agents and doctors, who are all motivates by brand-supplied financial incentives. For those driving the athletes to take performance enhancing drugs on the promise that they won’t get caught, the risks are miniscule or non-existant. So let’s make this a bigger gamble for the people making millions from the athletes’ – the brands.

Oh and if you’re worried that introducing penalties like this will drive the brands away, who cares? If we end up with brands who really care about the athletes welfare but can only afford very modest sponsorship deals, then we will end up with sportsmen and women who are motivated by the love of competition and seeing what non-doping human beings are really capable of, which I would watch every day of the week.

Post script: 29 July 2013

Today a friend posted an article on the Economist website which looks at the role that we, the spectators, as well as the brands play in the way athletes think about doping and cheating. The article explains that it is actually a rather complicated set of decisions that athletes have to take, once the simple relationship between competitors and the umpire/judge/authority figure has the influence of an audience added. And the role the audience plays? Well that is all about money… so we are back to square one. Anyway, great article and if you care to read it, it is here.