Profiles 16 July 2015

Q: When is a berry not a berry? A: When it’s a supplement…

OK, that’s not much of a joke. However, it does neatly summarise the views of Olympian Lauryn Williams, who has strong views on nutrition and supplement use in sport. In this exclusive interview with the Sports Integrity Initiative, Williams talks about the importance of proper nutrition, and how it is becoming more difficult to draw a line between what constitutes a natural food, and what is considered a supplement. She also talks about how marketing has led to the perception that supplements are an essential part of sport, as well as her own experience with supplement use at the start of her career. She also highlights her view that athletes who have doped deserve a second chance – with strict conditions.


Lauryn Williams is the first American woman to medal in both the summer and winter Olympic Games. She is a US sprinter and bobsledder, who took silver at the 2004 Athens Olympics in the 100 metres, and gold at the 2005 World Championships in Athletics in Helsinki ahead of Veronica Campbell. She also won the silver medal as part of the two-woman bobsled team at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. She is proud owner of a Great Dane puppy, and is currently considering her next steps outside of athletics.

She also has strong views on doping in sports, especially supplements. In a blog posting, she highlighted her annoyance with constant approaches from those keen to extol the virtues of supplements. ‘I really believe there is a misconception about how a lot of athletes test positive for banned substances’, she wrote. ‘There is no doubt that there are people out there who are trying to gain an advantage, but drugs are everywhere and many average Joes are unknowing distributors. This is now the 3rd time in 18 months that I have been exposed to banned substances by someone who calls himself an “expert”. These were not back alley meetings and I didn’t go seeking out drugs, or even supplements for that matter. However, the reality is that if you’re an average Joe or “Weekend Warrior”, it’s okay to take this stuff so of course everyone is selling it.’

The rise of supplements

Williams was offered supplements early on in her career, but realised that she didn’t need them. “During college, my coach gave us multivitamins and omega-3, which are both two very standard supplements”, she said. “Other athletes would go and ask for more, and so I did the same thing! However, after the 2004 Olympics, I came home and had a cupboard full of these supplements which had expired. I had maybe six bottles of multivitamins and six of omega-3. I was an Olympic silver medalist, but I had clearly not been very disciplined in taking them back then. But I had an Olympic silver, so clearly they were not the key to success.”

“At that point, it was just two things and other people were taking six or seven”, she explains. “I won the silver all by myself and I want to be confident, secure and feel good about the idea that I did this all by myself. I threw the supplements in the trash, and I never looked back! I have been supplement free since then.”

Like Williams, most top-level athletes are supplement-free. However, individuals and supplement companies are increasingly keen to get athletes to endorse their products, and have regularly approached Williams over the years. One such approach proved one too many, and prompted her blog posting. Williams explains that these approaches become increasingly awkward when you ask for details – such as what as in each supplement and if it works.

“It used to happen just through being out and about in public”, said Williams. “You might do a speaking engagement, for example, and somebody might come up to you at the end of it and ask what supplements you use. When you say that you are not using anything, they tell you about the one that is benefitting them.”

Echoing comments made by UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) CEO Nicole Sapstead in her interview with The Sports Integrity Initiative, Williams said that supplement use is now part of everyday society. “You would be surprised at the amount of ‘average Joes’ that are using such supplements and are promoting them as a way to earn extra income”, she said. “They can’t tell you any detailed information about them – they just have the marketing spiel that was sent to them. They don’t believe in the real benefits of the product. If you start to ask intelligent questions about it, they can’t answer you.”

Williams said that this increased availability can cause new issues for athletes. “How readily available this stuff is puts up red flags everywhere”, she continues. “It also shows how hard it is for an athlete that is trying to do the right thing, as they are being hit from all sides. Aunt Mary might be selling a type of supplement, and offer it to a relative, who is an athlete, to improve their performance. The athlete ends up testing positive – they didn’t mean to do anything wrong and neither did Aunt Mary. But the athlete’s career and integrity is ruined because of it.”

The lines are also becoming blurred between food and supplements. You can now buy supplements directly from supermarkets such as Tesco, which has a ‘supplement aisle’ in some of its larger stores, with a paid advisor. This also creates problems for athletes, argues Williams.

“There are lots of foods now that come in powder form”, she explains. “Companies are freeze-drying food and then powdering them. The lines get a little bit blurry because a lot of foods that have been freeze-dried are ending up in the supplements section. People don’t know which one is which!”

This issue is further complicated by marketing by the supplement companies, which has created the idea that you need to take something in order to win – you need an ‘extra edge’, or a ‘boost’. Williams argues that supplements are becoming popular, even though there is no evidence that they actually work, because this marketing works.

“This is the same reason that we see commercials on television every day”, she says. “Marketing works. We are being brainwashed by what these companies are putting out there as evidence in the media. Perception is reality, and people are seeing these commercials, such as these ‘before and after’ pictures…all of these wonderful things that they’re telling you, lead to people not having confidence in themselves anymore. The companies are telling them that they need something else, you need an edge.”

“What we really need to do is take responsibility for ourselves and realise that there is no extra edge”, argues Williams. “It is about being the best that you can be, naturally. That is, making the most of the resources that you have available to you – that you can have proper nutrition, that you can train at your hardest and that you can get the best result from it. We need to stop looking at the idea that the sky is the limit, the idea that you can go from an average Joe to winning the Tour de France, for example. The idea that by taking these supplements, you are improving your time by ten seconds…if it’s not naturally conceivable that you can improve your time by ten seconds, then be OK with that! Do the best that you can to improve it by two seconds, improve it by five seconds. Winning is not everything, and that is the thing that is driving athletes and others to feel like they need to use supplements and get these things that are going to make their performance better. They think that they, as themselves, will not be good enough.”

Regulation of supplements

Williams argues that sport should steer clear of accepting sponsorship from supplement companies, as this implies endorsement. England’s Rugby Football Union (RFU) has a commercial partnership with MaxiNutrition, and on its sponsor information page, has a link to guidance on supplements (which, at the moment, doesn’t work). In recent years, a number of rugby players have blamed supplements for positive tests. While there is no suggestion that MaxiNutrition’s sponsorship has in any way contributed to this, an argument has been made that its sponsorship gives young players the idea that taking supplements is accepted by rugby.

Williams supports this view. “I think that they should be prevented from doing it”, she says. “It makes sense for a supplement company to align themselves with sport. That’s good marketing for them. They are able to say that athletes are using their products. You have to remember that at the end of the day, supplement companies are making their money from the general public. There are far more random people in the world than there are athletes. But if you put an athlete on the label, it makes the average Joe want to buy it.”

Williams also argues that sponsorship by supplement companies can put athletes in a difficult position. “We do not want to be in a situation where we blur the lines, and put athletes into a situation where they have to choose whether or not to endorse these supplements”, she explains. “If they have to show up with a bib number with a supplement company on it, then even if they are not using that supplement, this blurs the lines.”

“You can see why companies would want to do it, but it is inappropriate for sporting organisations to align themselves with supplements when there is no regulation”, she continues. “There is nothing proving these substances to be effective, or free of harmful substances. We don’t know the long term effects of taking these things, which are made in a laboratory by a scientist. Nobody should therefore take on the responsibility for distributing these supplements to other athletes – nor should they align themselves with them and take money from them.”

Governments should play a role in this area, argues Williams. “It would be really nice if the government would take a role in regulating this, perhaps even setting limits of separation between an organisation and a supplement company”, she says. “However, this would put pressure on the government to properly support sport. We have a lack of resources in many sporting organisations and a lot of them are fighting just to get by. Smaller sporting organisations depend heavily on sponsorship from outside companies. We have got to find a way of getting funding from these outside companies without compromising integrity.”

Williams says that she supports the stance that anti-doping organisations have taken on the issue of supplements, but in today’s austerity environment, resources are increasingly thin. UKAD’s recent accounts showed that it is coping with grant reduction and increased costs, but that further budget cuts are forecast for 2015/16. The US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) has recently taken on an extra remit by agreeing to oversee anti-doping in the Ultimate Fighting Championship and the Canadian Football League, however it is not clear if it will have the budget increases required to pay for this. Anti-doping organisations could face a stark choice in the future – cut testing, or cut education.

“I think that WADA, USADA and others have taken a stance to make sure that people are not ill-informed, and to let people know that it’s not OK for people to align themselves with a supplement organisation”, she says. “They have used examples where an athlete has been sponsored by a supplement company and that athlete has ended up testing positive. That starts a whole debate about whose fault it is. They are doing the best that they can to discourage people from aligning themselves with supplement companies, but USADA and WADA also need more resources to do this.”

Williams supports programmes such as Informed Sport, which aim to provide the information to enable athletes to make a choice about whether or not to use supplements. “I think that it is good that we have resources where athletes can go and get educated about the risks of taking supplements”, she says. “Athletes need to know about what they might be getting themselves into, but also the positive alternatives. For example, nutritional breakdowns and the different things that you can do with food, because it does take a lot of knowledge and education.”

“Athletes should be able to go to a place that has positive information, and information that you can trust”, continues Williams. “There is so much information out there, so to have information that is accredited in such a way that it can be shared with you in confidence is a great resource to have.” Athletes need to take a lot more responsibility, instead of waiting for information to be fed to them. They need to go out and look for the information that is from a good source, and is of good quality.”


The subject of sanctions is a difficult issue. A line often touted is that ‘athletes support a lifetime ban’, however if you talk to athletes and ask questions, their views are often more complicated than that. Most athletes support a lifetime ban for intentional drug cheats, but would not support a lifetime ban where it can be proven that an athlete has made a mistake.

As in any walk of life, there are extremes. British gold medal winning cyclist Nicole Cooke told the Sports Integrity Initiative that she is a supporter of a lifetime ban as a starting point, with a possible reduction for cooperation with the investigating authorities. In contrast, Williams believes that everyone should be given a second chance.

“I’m not actually a proponent of the lifetime ban, because people make mistakes”, she explains. “People are often surprised to hear me say that, because of my view on supplements. It is important to consider what the athlete is going through and what caused them to get to that point. I feel that everybody deserves a chance of redemption.”

“We have murderers and paedophiles that serve their sentence”, continues Williams. “They get a second chance at life, but there are a lot of things in place to rehabilitate them, such as group homes, parole, etc. I think that we need a lot more things in place to rehabilitate athletes who have served their ban. Athletes should be prepared to publicly talk about what has gone on rather than keep it all secret. Athletes returning from a ban owe other athletes some sort of explanation. They should be out there, talking to the kids about their story and the mistake that they have made. There should be a lot more open communication about how such athletes ended up in the situation that they are in. In think we need a lot of other keyhole things in place for once an athlete has served their ban. Rehabilitation needs to be continual.”

However, Williams is clear that all athletes testing positive should serve some type of ban. “Once you have been caught with a banned substance in your body, you have to serve some type of ban”, she argues. “Even if you make a mistake, you shouldn’t be let off the hook. If it is determined that you did this maliciously, and you were trying to get the benefits of some type of steroid, for example, there needs to be a serious penalty.”

“It needs to be four to six years, because most athlete’s careers don’t even last that long”, she argues. “If you are banned for four to six years and you still want to come back after that, then good luck to you! The authorities will know that they’ve made the road hard for you.”

Williams also agreed that reformed dopers should not be able to profit from their experience. An often heard argument from athletes is that it pays to dope while you are competing, and also after you finish, through speaking engagements and books, etc. “If you have served a ban, you should be prepared to accept that any speaking engagements should be unpaid, required and mandatory”, argues Williams. “Athletes who have doped should be forced to attend medal reallocation ceremonies and to hand the medal over to the rightful winner. But good luck in getting those athletes to show up!”

Secret to success

Williams told the Sports Integrity Initiative that she would never take a supplement, however she does have a solution for athletes that are keen to succeed – nutrition. “As an athlete, the most important thing is proper nutrition – finding the right balance of fruits, vegetables and foods that contain the right vitamins that are specific to your body – proteins, carbs, etc.”, she explains. “What we have got into, as a society, is trying to find a quick way out from that. So, as an athlete, it is your responsibility to try and be the best that you can be. Within those parameters is taking responsibility for the food that you put into your body. So, if you eat McDonalds, you should expect a McDonalds type performance!”

“If you eat a good quality protein, if you eat carbs, fresh fruits and fresh vegetables, you should expect a better performance, because you have put things that come naturally from the earth in your body”, she continues. “I think that it is really important that we take responsibility for nutrition as athletes.”

Within that comes responsibility for accounting for where athletes are getting their nutrition from, which is often difficult to do with supplements. However, Williams  has a remarkably simple solution.

“If you can actually account for the original source of the food, then they are generally not supplements. The Acai berry is a good example of something that ends up in the supplements section nowadays. It’s actually a berry that has been freeze-dried and turned into a powder form. It’s not a supplement because you can trace it back to its origins, which is a fruit that has come from a tree, and it has nothing else in it apart from the fruit which comes from a tree.”

“It’s a lot easier if you just stick to regular fruit and vegetables that you can actually see at the grocery store, because they came out of the ground!”, says Williams. “There are probably some new scientific ways to grow them, but for the most part, they came out of the ground. Being able to decipher the source of a food is how you tell the difference between a food and a supplement. If it comes from a laboratory; if it has ingredients that I can’t pronounce; if I can’t figure out where tracko-thacko-macko-lycin(!) came from, then that’s a supplement, and I’ll stay away from it!”

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