Opinion 11th May 2017

Kelly Sotherton interview: we want new medals, not tainted ones

Kelly Sotherton has said that she would like the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to cast new medals, rather than receive medals that have been in the “dirty hands” of athletes disqualified for doping due to IOC retests. Sotherton is a three-time Olympic medalist that has stood on an Olympic podium just once, due to doping cheats. The Sports Integrity Initiative spoke to her at the recent Sport Resolutions conference in London.

Sotherton retired in 2012, having won bronze in the heptathlon at the 2004 Athens Olympics. She later learned that she had also won bronze in the same event at the Beijing 2008 Olympics, following the disqualification of Lyudmyla Blonska and Tatyana Chernova for doping. She also won bronze in the 4x400m relay at the Beijing Games, in which the British team initially finished fifth, after the Russian and Belarusian team were disqualified due to doping offences.

“People should be issued with new medals”, she argues. “I do not want a medal that has been somewhere where it has been in the hands of a cheat. I’ve been burgled. It’s like receiving stolen goods. It has been in dirty hands. Really, truly, why would you want it back? Just press a new one and put a new lanyard on it. Give the person a new, shiny medal in a new box that they should have received at the time.”

Under the current system, athletes disqualified for doping are required to return their Olympic medal to the IOC so that it can be posted to its rightful owner. As the IOC statement relating to Chernova’s disqualification reveals, the rightful medal owner has no say in the process – it is up to the disqualified athlete to return the ‘medal, the medallist pin and the diploma’.

Sotherton argues that this prolongs the agony for the rightful medal owner and places power back in the hands of the disqualified athlete. In February, the Russian Athletics Federation (RusAF) admitted that only one of 23 Olympic medalists disqualified by the IOC for doping had returned their medal. The number of Russians disqualified by the IOC for doping has since grown.

“Why do we prolong the agony for that person?” she argues. “Let the original person keep the medal, but it will mean nothing because they will not be in the record books. I had a letter from the BOA [British Olympic Association], from Bill Sweeney [BOA CEO]. He congratulated me. We’ve got to wait for the ratification of the result to be officially amended and then wait for the handback of the medal. Why? Why wait for the handback? Just acknowledge it and present a new medal.”

Sotherton argues that official ratification of the IOC decision should not be so prolonged, pointing out that Wikipedia changed her results almost immediately. The IOC statement also requires the decision to be recognised, but does not set a time limit on that recognition.

‘The IAAF is requested to modify the results of the above-mentioned event accordingly and to consider any further action within its own competence’, it reads. ‘The Russian Olympic Committee shall ensure full implementation of this decision. The Russian Olympic Committee shall notably secure the return to the IOC, as soon as possible, of the bronze medal, the medallist pin and the diploma awarded in connection with the women’s heptathlon event to the Athlete.’

As it hands competence to others without setting a time limit, instant recognition of the decision is likely be harder to achieve. Given that the IOC’s decision relates to a competition (the Olympic Games) over which it has jurisdiction, it remains unclear why it cannot set time limits for implementation of its decision.

The IOC’s decision in the Chernova case highlights that she contested her adverse analytical finding (AAF) for dehydrochlormethyltestosterone (turinabol). However, her argument was not accepted by the IOC, based on her arguments in another case against her.

‘The comfort of the Disciplinary Commission in reaching the conclusion that the analytical findings are valid and that the substance identified in her samples was oral turinabol is reinforced by the fact that the Athlete was found to have used this very same substance one year later’, reads the full decision. ‘In this case, she did not attempt to challenge the result. On the contrary, her argument in the further ABP case that her blood results were influenced by the fact that she was using oral turinabol is a direct admission that she has been using that substance, at least in 2009’.

The IOC’s position places international federations in a difficult situation. As the above illustrates, the IOC decision relies on the ABP decision being correct, however that decision is being appealed at the CAS. The situation regarding Chernova is perhaps not as black and white as the IOC statement makes out.

Jessica Ennis-Hill

However, the IOC’s whole approach to the reallocation of medals swivels the media spotlight back in the direction of those found guilty of doping at the Olympics, argues Sotherton. It has been suggested in the past that the guilty athlete should hand over the medal to its rightful owner in a special ceremony. For the same reason, Sotherton doesn’t agree with that concept.

“Again, that takes the moment away because they are involved”, she argues. “Am I sure that Jess Ennis would love to have that [Daegu 2011 IAAF World] Championship gold handed over to her by Chernova? No, she probably doesn’t really. It’s her moment and that would mean that Chernova would still be in the limelight. You want to eradicate her completely.”

Funding anti-doping

Nicole Cooke

Nicole Cooke, who won gold in the Beijing 2008 Olympic cycling road race, has previously said that sport needs to discintentivize doping. She has argued that athletes who dope profit twice – once on the field of play, and secondly from the financial rewards from selling their story if they are caught. Athletes caught doping can receive financial rewards through books and speaking engagements, meaning that they also profit post-sanction. I asked Sotherton if she would support the idea that a percentage of any such profits should go back towards anti-doping.

“If you are earning from educating people about the wrongs that you committed in your sport, but you’re educating and stopping people from making that decision, why should you then stop them from making money?” she argues. “Coming from an athlete that’s been cheated, I don’t think it should go past that. If they are talking about what they’ve done wrong and advising people, then why shouldn’t they earn money from that?”

“If we were to do this, we would be affecting people’s lives for the next 40 or 50 years”, continued Sotherton. “Ten years ago, I would have said yes, they shouldn’t be earning, but I now have a different perspective. If they are working towards the greater good, then why not?”

Anti-doping organisations consistently argue that they are underfunded. The Rio 2016 Olympics is understood to be the most lucrative Games in history for the IOC, with over $4 billion in broadcasting revenue alone set to flow towards Lausanne. Yet the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) annual budget is $30 million, half of which is provided by the IOC and half of which is provided by governments.

WADA’s funding model insulates the IOC from claims that it should provide more money, by requiring WADA to consult with governments for any funding increase, which is then matched by the IOC. There is an argument that this should be the other way around, however that is a debate for another day.

It has previously been suggested that in order to raise more money for anti-dopng, sports organisations should donate a fixed percentage of their revenue. This is an idea that Sotherton would back.

“I think that should happen”, she says, arguing that it could be written into broadcasting and sponsorship contracts. “As an organisation sponsoring an event or a sport, they should be happy and willing to put a percentage of money towards anti-corruption, anti-doping, and good governance. This should be in every kind of contract that a sporting organisation has. Actually, it safeguards them, because it shows they are looking to the greater good, and it helps sport to achieve a parity of clean sport and good governance.”

An additional problem with the global regulation of doping is the disparity of resources between national anti-doping organisations (NADOs) in developed countries, and those in less-developed countries. For example, it is arguably unreasonable to expect the Anti-Doping Agency of Kenya (ADAK) to have the same level of resources as UK Anti-Doping (UKAD). Rightly or wrongly, this inequality creates the perception amongst athletes that they are not competing on a level playing field.

“It is expensive to test”, says Sotherton. “UKAD can only do so many in-competition and out-of-competition tests. There can only be so much random testing in people’s homes. There does need to be far more investment into that, but if it’s happening in Great Britain, that should happen in every country.”

Taking a percentage of sponsorship and broadcasting revenue could help equalise that imbalance, says Sotherton. “The sponsorship money that sport gets, there has to be a percentage that goes into looking at anti-doping and the corruption side of sport”, she argues. “It all comes back to duty of care and looking after the sport and the athlete, as well as enduring the health of the sport and the athlete”.

Rewriting records

On 1 May, the media had a collective hernia after European Athletics announced that it was considering a proposal to win back credibility by only recognising senior-level records where athletes have had a specified number of tests in the previous 12 months; and part of the doping control sample has been stored and made available for retesting for a ten-year period.

However, the proposal was not new. The UK Athletics ‘Manifesto for Clean Athletics’ first proposed the idea in January 2016. Athletes were critical of the idea then, and leaving aside issues identified with the latest proposal, athletes remain sceptical.

Paula Radcliffe

‘Governing bodies have a duty to protect the clean athlete’, wrote Marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe on Twitter. ‘Here, they again fail those athletes. We had to compete against cheats, they couldn’t provide us a level playing field, we lost out on medals, moments and earnings due to cheats, saw our sport dragged through the mud due to cheats and now, thanks to those who chose to cheat, we could potentially lost our World and Area records’.

‘The proposal by European Athletics, to scrap world records set prior to 2005, is an insult and a huge slap in the face’, wrote long jump world record holder Mike Powell in a Facebook post. ‘Taking away my record isn’t just an insult to me personally, but it is erasing part of American- and world sports history.’

Sotherton’s point of view is more objective. “If you rewrite a record, then every national record also has to go”, she points out. “Do club records go? Junior records? European indoor and outdoor? Commonwealth? There are so many connotations to it. It is good that it’s there for discussion and for people to debate. I think that people need to stop being precious about their world records. They still did great things, but if this is for the greater good of sport, maybe think secondly about it. If you’ve got kids in sport then think about them. Would you want them chasing a world record?”

Asked if the proposal will restore credibility to athletics, Sotherton half laughs and half scoffs “No!” She goes on to mention a number of world records that are “never going to be broken” because they are “ridiculous”, but they still exist. “They’ve been there for a long time and they’re there for a reason”, she says. “Let’s acknowledge them, move on, change the event – change the heptathlon for god’s sake! Do something different so that there’s a rule or regulation that changes the record. Like in the pole vault. If you change the bar or the pole, you change the whole event. In javelin there have been two changes and five records have gone. But those legends are not forgotten.”

The option of changing an event was considered by European Athletics, but rejected. ‘The deciding issue was that even with changes to the technical rules requiring a new start to the record list, this approach would not address the possibility that a new record could also be the result of cheating and the sport would end up with a new set of records but the same old set of problems’, read the proposal.

The same argument has been made against the entire record rewriting plan. At this year’s Sport Resolutions conference, former cyclist Tyler Hamilton said it would be “naive” to assume that sport is any cleaner now than it was in 2005, when the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) began to store samples. Herein lies the crux of the problem. Athletics is keen on the proposal because it feels it will enable it to draw a line under the issue, which suggest that doping in athletics is a problem that has been solved. However, history tells us that doping has always existed, and there is no magic wand that will spirit the problem away. There will always be cheats. Unfortunately, it appears to be part of human nature.

Anti-doping wishlist

Asked what things could be done to improve the situation in the future, Sotherton is not hesitant in mentioning investment, education and reliable information about supplements. As has previously been discussed on The Sports Integrity Initiative, most elite athletes take supplements in an effort to enhance performance, yet the term ‘performance enhancement’ has become demonised. Sleeping and eating are performance enhancing.

Sotherton argues that a regulatory authority is needed on supplements. “There isn’t one”, she points out. “It’s not covered by the Food Standards Agency. You can buy stuff over the internet and you don’t know what the hell you’re getting. I know that 95% of people test positive because they have made a wrong decision. They have clicked a button, taken it and not read all the ingredients. There’s not any intention there. Better regulation, using a better system like Informed Sport, should be standard.”

‘Mildronate’ – the brand name of meldonium

Every athlete accused of doping will argue that their adverse analytical finding (AAF) was inadvertent, however the lack of information provided to them does allow them to rely on that excuse. For example, when meldonium was added to WADA’s Prohibited List in 2016, its only brand name (mildronate) did not feature either in English or in the languages of the Eastern European countries where usage was common. WADA appeared to make little effort to inform international federations or athletes that a substance commonly used in some countries was being added to the List. The result? A sporting star returns a positive test and her future performance is questioned, despite a complete lack of evidence that use was for anything other than medical reasons.

Sotherton is not under any illusions that the doping problem will go away, but sees the answer in providing people with information so that they can make their own decisions. This can be done through proper investment, education and regulation, she argues. That way, sport and athletes can take proper responsibility for the decisions that they take, and anti-doping organisations can get on with the task of catching the real cheats.

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