In Good Conscience

Despite Radcliffe's denials, no one is above suspicion

At the height of her athletics career, Paula Radcliffe, the fastest female marathon runner ever, campaigned against dopers contaminating her sport.

In 2001, she held up a banner reading "EPO CHEATS OUT" in protest against the reinstatement of a Russian competitor who had tested positive for the banned drug erythropoietin (EPO).

Two years after that, Radcliffe ran the London Marathon in 2hr 15min 25 sec, a world record that still stands.

Now retired to motherhood and the TV studios as a commentator on others, the Briton is caught up in a nightmare of innuendo and suspicion.

Secret files from the International Association of Athletics Federations' (IAAF) store of blood samples taken from 5,000 athletes between 2001 and 2012 were leaked to the press.

On Tuesday, under parliamentary privilege, an MP alluded to London Marathon winners under suspicion.

The finger pointed to Radcliffe.

Is Radcliffe entitled to unquestioning respect, any more than Olga Yegorova, whose reinstatement in 2001 led to the Briton holding up a banner to denounce the Russian as a cheat?

She and her supporters have come out fighting and explaining.

They say that three separate post-race blood tests on Radcliffe did show "abnormal"? readings.

Any score above 103 recorded by a female athlete triggers investigation in the IAAF laboratory - and her scores included findings of 114.86, 109.86 and 109.3.

Radcliffe contends that the highest of those readings was invalid because it was taken immediately after a half-marathon in Portugal in 30 deg C heat.

She points out that the World Anti-Doping Agency now considers samples taken within two hours of competition as invalid.

All three high readings, she further contends, were taken after periods of altitude training, and two were taken immediately after races.

"Abnormal readings are not proof of guilt," Radcliffe writes in her long statement pleading innocence and indignation that her reputation has been smeared. "Yet, many innocent athletes are being implicated due to the distortion of a limited historic data set."

A mother of two, she reacted vehemently towards a BBC woman interviewer who asked if she lacked the "bottle" to publish her blood test data.

"I know that I am clean,"? she responded. "You're the one who has doubts and that, when it all boils down to it, is not my problem.

"I can look my children in the eye and teach them the same moral beliefs that I was brought up with - to treat other people with respect, to treat other people fairly no matter whether other people will treat you with respect."

So, she added, she would not be forced into giving out more data.

Sebastian Coe, the new IAAF president, heard her plea and said: "I think everybody knows Paula is a clean athlete, I don't think she should be in the position of having to defend herself."

No? Who is above suspicion in this game of sports and doping abuse? Is Radcliffe entitled to unquestioning respect, any more than Olga Yegorova, whose reinstatement in 2001 led to the Briton holding up a banner to denounce the Russian as a cheat?

It is now apparent, from the same leaked data (the stolen data as described by Radcliffe and Coe), that some Russians and others were tested as being not marginally above the 103 line of suspicion, but as high as 140.

The problem with perception is that different scientists have different interpretations of blood samples. One professor's view on abnormality invites another professor to read into the same figures all manner of explanation.

Altitude is certainly likely to increase the red blood cells, and thus enhance the breathing capacity of a distance runner.

Dehydration, apparently, does reduce the fluid in blood and can possibly increase the red cell count.

And then, as medical experts are stressing, there is a natural variation in everyone's make-up. It is what separates the super athletes from the rest of us, and wretchedly there are all too many instances of crooked doctors or laboratory technicians selling medications intended to correct illness to enhance performance in the fit.

Worse, these substances can break the medical oath to do no harm. The side-effects of stimulants or body-building drugs are potentially life-threatening, the antitheses of both the Hippocratic oath and the Olympic oath.

So, is Radcliffe a queen of pure unadulterated sporting wholesomeness? Is Coe justified in calling the leak of data held by his organisation a "war"? on the sport he must do everything in his power to be seen as clean and credible?

Frankly, I wish I knew. The best that we owe any athlete is the presumption of innocence until or unless faced with proof of guilt.

When Radcliffe was 14, she was diagnosed with what was called "exercise-induced asthma" and blood anaemia. She was already at that time determined to run further, for longer than seemed normal in other children.

When she rose to world-class performance, she had the means to afford long periods of altitude training in the French Alps - training she and her close circle of advisers saw as essential to compete against the advantage that athletes from, say the Rift Valley in Kenya, enjoyed. Coming down from altitude to race at sea level is known to enhance the oxygen-carrying red blood cells.

I suspect that, if the IAAF has been sitting on a mountain of suspicious blood samples all these years, it is either because the tests are inconclusive or because the cheating is so rife that administrators dare not reveal the extent of it.

We may not have progressed very far since the days when East Germany systemically injected infants with drugs to push them to win medals for the glory of a discredited state. And sad though it is that Radcliffe has to live with horrid innuendo, one wonders if she has a tiny bit of regret for the assumptions that made her point a banner of suspicion towards the Russian rival Yegorova.

What goes around has a habit of coming around.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 12, 2015, with the headline 'Despite Radcliffe's denials, no one is above suspicion'. Print Edition | Subscribe