Triathlon Coach Steve Trew faces a dilemma when an athlete previously banned for doping comes in for a new win

Steve Trew Triathlon Coach Blog, Illustration: Peter Greenwood

Off the Point. Illustration: Peter Greenwood

What do I do? I’ve just watched a fantastic performance from an athlete racing age group at a major championship. She’s won convincingly. Make that, very convincingly. So what’s the dilemma? Well, this particular athlete tested positive for a performance-enhancing substance (let’s cut the crap: drugs!) when she was racing as a professional athlete.

She won the biggest of the biggest. And then she tested positive, got banned, served a couple of years and is now back racing as an age-grouper. So that’s all right then…

So what do I do? I’m in the commentary box with my good friend, John Levison, and we’re looking at each other… John feels the same way as me about drugs. It’s cheating, isn’t it. Taking stuff, because without it, you’re not quite good enough. Good enough to make the team, maybe, but not good enough to medal, to win, to be famous.

We’re supposed to go into ecstatic convulsions right now, screaming into the mic, drawing everyone’s attention to a brilliant winning performance. I guess we’re both waiting for the other one to do the honours. “Ladies and gentlemen! Please put your hands together and welcome in the wonderful…” But neither of us can – wants to – do it. The silence is deafening.

Curious behaviour

I’d watched this particular athlete race many times before. Two occasions stick out: early in one particular season she’d raced to a very average mid-field position in a regional championship. Then two months later she’d annihilated the field in an ITU event, but seemed to back off at the end – with a win assured – to finish second.

What happened there then? I’d been watching with another British coach and we both raised eyebrows at the performance, not least because she was a different shape from two months previously. She looked 15kg lighter and had very tight, cut muscle definition. One of the national coaches of this particular athlete was standing just over from us. A quizzical eyebrow was raised by us, the British contingent. A sideways nod of the head, a shoulder shrug, a downcast look, from the other side. Actions speak louder than words? They did that day.

There are always rumours, of course. There had been rumours about this athlete. But what do you do? How do you react? If the tests always come up negative, then the athlete’s clean, right? How do you know if someone’s on stuff? How do you really know? Do you have to be in the room when the needle goes in? When the pills are swallowed? Does it come down to jealousy? Jealousy of an amazing, superlative performance? The jealousy coming from an athlete who hasn’t trained as hard, who hasn’t put in the hours? Who wants to make the excuse that excuses their own sub-par performance? Or is it the frustration of knowing, absolutely knowing, that he or she is on stuff? Knowing without a shred of a doubt, but being unable to prove it.

Excuses, excuses

The athlete always has reasons, hasn’t he?

“I was told it was OK.”
“I thought it was just a supplement.”
“It’s all right in my country, the ingredients must be different over here.”
“Everyone else is on stuff – I’m only making things equal.”
Yeah, right.

Or it’s: “Yes, I know it’s cheating but I did it anyway.”
“Yeah, I took it because I wanted to win.”
“I took it because I knew I wasn’t good enough without it.”
“I took it because I wanted to be rich.”
That really happens a lot, doesn’t it?

So what did we do, me and John? Did we stand by our high moral judgement and refuse to say anything? Or did we throw caution and integrity to the wind and wax as eloquently as we would have done with any other competitor? What would you have done? She’s forgiven. Bygones be bygones. Welcome back?

We did the usual British thing: we compromised. We welcomed her in, great performance, a very short biog. And that was it. But we didn’t feel right about it. I felt dirty, actually. And that’s it, isn’t it? It’s dirty, the doping and the drug taking.

It affects all of us because we love our triathlon. We love our sport without compromise. And when stuff like that happens, it diminishes us and our sport. It makes us feel dirty. And that is very wrong.