For almost a year Paula Radcliffe has known that her name was on a leaked list of athletes with “suspicious blood values”.
And for almost a year the women’s marathon world record holder has ruminated over how best to respond. Her choice was simple yet desperately tricky. To go on the front foot, like on so many occasions during her glittering career – during which she obliterated the marathon record and won championship titles on track and cross-country – by explaining the reasons for the fluctuations in her blood data?
Or, as she eventually decided, to listen to those advisers who warned her to say nothing in public in order to keep the lid on the story?
Throughout the summer, as fresh allegations about blood doping were pumped into the mainstream by the German broadcaster ARD and the Sunday Times – which revealed that a prominent British athlete was suspected without naming him or her – Radcliffe wondered whether she had made the right choice. By Tuesday lunchtime, after the MP Jesse Norman indirectly and inadvertently identified her as being under suspicion at a parliamentary inquiry into blood doping, she felt as if she had no choice. It was time to go public.
In a four-page statement, Radcliffe confirmed she was the top British athlete referred to by the Sunday Times before “categorically denying” she had “resorted to cheating in any form whatsoever at any time in my career”. And with that everything was out of the box. The accusations, which had swirled around the sport and social media since December. And the counter-arguments, which she had made forcefully in private to her friends and colleagues.
Radcliffe’s defence was three-fold. To deny any wrongdoing. To attack the Sunday Times’ for not considering the legitimate reasons for her three suspicious blood values and publishing what she called “stolen and leaked and incomplete data”. And to reveal why she had previously held her tongue.
As Radcliffe explained: “At the time of the recent Sunday Times coverage, I wrestled long and hard with a desire to speak out with the true facts concerning my position, and, to fully explain any fluctuations in my blood data. However by ‘coming out’ in that fashion I was made aware that I would be facilitating mass coverage of my name in connection with false allegations of possible doping, which would enable further irreparable damage to be done to my reputation. As a result of the parliamentary hearing I can no longer maintain my silence.”
Last month the Sunday Times alleged that 12 athletes from Britain had abnormal off-scores – which are calculated by using an equation that involves an athlete’s haemoglobin and reticulocyte levels – in the 11 years before the London 2012 Olympics including “a successful athlete who on three occasions recorded off-scores that had a less than a one-in-1,000 chance of being natural”. The paper quoted the athlete, now known to be Radcliffe, as denying any cheating, threatening legal action and telling it: “You print it and I sue you [and] you won’t be getting any money back in future like Lance Armstrong, I promise you that.”
On Tuesday, however, Radcliffe insisted that post-race dehydration, high temperatures, a bout of illness and altitude training could explain her three different abnormal blood values. “In all of these three cases referred to by the Sunday Times [as well as on many more occasions] I was EPO urine tested at the time, and also in follow up,” she said. “All of these three cases followed periods of altitude training. Only one of my blood test scores is marginally above the one in 100 accepted threshold, and this is invalid given that it was collected immediately following a half-marathon race run around midday in temperatures of approximately 30C. None of my blood-test scores are anywhere near the one in 1,000 threshold as was claimed by the Sunday Times and that which is seen as suspicion of doping.”
On Tuesday night, the Sunday Times stood by its journalism which it called “responsible and accurate”. Meanwhile Radcliffe’s fellow BBC pundit Steve Cram, who is also a close friend, told the Guardian that there were other reasons why she had kept her counsel. “Paula has always wanted to be honest about this but she was taking advice from the IAAF and Wada, who told her not to make her details public,” he said. “That was difficult for her because she was aware of the rumours on social media.
“I think she is actually quite relieved to put her case forward. It’s not nice for her, but Paula is the last person who would want to transgress even the smallest rule in the sport.”
Dave Bedford, a particularly vocal anti-doping campaigner during his long spell at the London Marathon, also backed Radcliffe. “Paula was absolutely right to be concerned about her name being on the list because anyone who has known her for a long time is absolutely 100% convinced she is not a drug cheat,” he said. “She has absolutely nothing to hide or be ashamed of, and I am glad she has spoken out publicly.”
Radcliffe’s supporters are aware that her exceptional marathon world record of 2hr 15min 25sec – more than three minutes faster than the next best on the all-time list – has led some to be suspicious. But when the Guardian spoke to Andrew Jones, the sports scientist who found that Radcliffe’s VO2max (the maximum volume of oxygen an athlete can use) was staggering as a 17-year-old, a number that climbed further in her career , he was not surprised at her times. “It was absolutely clear she was going to be breaking world records,” he said. “No other female to my knowledge has ever had that kind of physiology.”
As Cram pointed out, in 2002 – seven years before the biological passport was introduced – Radcliffe asked the IAAF to randomly test her more frequently and for her samples to be frozen so they could be tested when technology improved. “People who break world records are exceptional,” he said. “Yet if you go on most forums, whenever my name gets mentioned, they claim I was taking drugs. That is the world we live in. But Paula was an anti-doping pioneer, who demanded her blood was frozen years before anyone else. If she was in any way guilty, and she is not, how stupid would that be?”
Meanwhile Bedford believes that she will emerge stronger from her experience. “Paula will end up being an important leader in our sport,” he said. “She cares desperately about athletics and while all this won’t have been pleasant, it will have strengthened her.”
However Radcliffe was criticised for her initial lack of openness by Steve Magness, the US coach who was the main whistleblower in the recent BBC documentary that investigated alleged claims of anti-doping violations against Alberto Salazar at the Nike Oregon Project. Said Magness: ‘For someone who has been outspoken her whole career, it’s very disapointing that when the tables are turned she clams up. What this shows is it’s not about the sport at all, it’s about image. If it’s about the betterment of the sport, and you know the results will come out eventually, you don’t threaten lawsuits, you go with openness … It’s transparency at all times, not just when it’s convenient, that matters.’
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