The rules are there for a reason. They keep the sport clean, they create a level playing field and they provide a basis by which athletes and spectators can trust the sport.
However, in elite performance the laws can so often be open to interpretation. In this weeks blog, Olympic Gold Medalist and BISS Puxi Elite Performance Coach Marlon Devonish gives an honest assessment how the rules can be bent, micro-doping and shares some moments of when he crossed the line and took the consequences. He also discusses how the sports educators at BISS Puxi work to develop a moral compass that allows students to individually navigate their way through rules, competition and sports.
The rules are the rules – except when, as they so often are, they are open to interpretation. Rules play such an important role in sport and the referee, umpire or adjudicator are so often the villains of the piece as they pass judgement on an athlete based upon a split second decision.
There are times when the breach of the rules is clear and, despite somewhat comical appeals from the transgressor they are firmly applied. There are times when rules are bent slightly and excused as ‘sportsmanship’ perhaps as a football player feigns injury to waste vital seconds at the end of a match. There are also darker moments when the grey area between competitive sportsmanship and cheating are less clear.
Performance enhancing substances are now unfortunately part of sport. It is a cancer that eats the very fabric of what I love about sport. I believe that we cannot hide away from it and we must prepare for it in society, sport and in education. That is our responsibility to prepare future athletes with the knowledge and the moral compass to understand right from wrong and make the right decisions in the face of temptation and outside influences.
At BISS Puxi I work with a great group of sports educators that show the way and I hope to add some real experience from my time in athletics.
Go at the B of the Bang is a phrase coined by Linford Christie. Christie is an athlete that paved the way for so many people like me towards Olympic gold. He stretched the boundaries of what was possible and made huge break throughs in Great British athletics.
There is a rule which has caught both me and Christie out – it’s the ‘Anticipation of the Gun’ rule. This rule states that an athlete cannot react quicker than 0.1 seconds after the sound of the starting gun. If he or she does react quicker than 0.1 seconds off the blocks it is deemed that the athlete is gaining an unfair advantage by anticipating the start and shooting out of the blocks early and thus gaining an unfair advantage.
The start is critical. You can win or lose a race in the first mili-seconds. Any advantage is crucial in elite performance. Both myself and Christie have fallen foul of this rule. Christie during a World Championship and myself at a Diamond League Grand Prix have been disqualified for firing out of the blocks too quickly and falling foul of the rule.
There can be a fine line between breaking the rule and competing aggressively at an elite level and even top athletes can get caught in the myriad of regulations. You have to study it, you have to know and you have to be accountable to it.
Micro doping is different as it’s very clear that it is illegal. To be clear, the majority of athletes are clean and are great ambassadors for their sport. They work hard to compete on a level playing field and they love the sport. Micro doping is however something which has arisen as a problem in sport. It is regarded in some areas as a grey area, but for me it’s plain wrong.
For example, our genetics give us a map of who we are. We all have unique levels of hormones which make us who we are. Testosterone can have a significant effect on a sportsperson’s performance, aiding in muscle growth, and making an athlete stronger, and reducing recovery, being able to recover, enabling an athlete to duplicate those severe lactic acid track sessions that would otherwise take days to recover from.
The International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) set general parameters limiting the levels of various enhancing substances. These levels are set at the natural maximum occurring levels in the human body. Micro doping athletes are synthetically, via injection, increasing levels of testosterone, just within the IAAF legal limits. Raise their testosterone levels to the upper limit of what is allowed.
Is this breaking the rules or is this creating a level playing field between athletes? Is it right or wrong? For me it’s clear, this is illegal and a clear breach of the rules. Elite performance is about competing with the body you were born with, and being the best you can be though training, hard work, and a natural diet. However, one could say, “caffeine in coffee is a stimulant”. Although socially accepted, it is proven to enhance performance. Technically, all health micronutrients can enhance performance in various ways, and of course are permitted, but does caffeine sit in the category? Thus lies the blurred line.
There is also a lack of transparency in micro doping that is against the spirit of open clean sports and something which plays such an important part in athletes, spectators and sponsors trusting that what they see in competition are clean natural athletes competing for gold.
I have faced the temptations of sport. I have navigated away from the grey areas of regulations and followed the clean path. I have heard the voices of those trying to show me the wrong path. Believe me, for an ambitious young athlete, it’s not an easy path. But at the end of the day you have to follow your own moral compass and make the decision to do things the right way.
The IAAF is flighting back against those trying to take advantage of micro doping. It is called the athlete biological passport. This is a blood test taken that measures the natural levels within an athletes blood. So if an athletes levels rise to suggest synthetical enhancement. This will be investigated and if proven guilty, the athlete will be banned.
There is no excuse for drugs in sports. It undermines the very essence of sporting competition and threatens to undermine everything that we do as professional athletes. The athletics governing bodies are developing ever more sophisticated ways to monitor athletes to make sure they are clean.
I have never at any stage taken performance enhancing drugs. That allows me to enjoy my victories of the past and work with young athletes today with a clear conscience sending a clear message that you can win gold and you can win it clean.
Professional athletes are tested randomly. I was obliged to tell the authorities where I will be for one hour of each and every day. This was all documented via a website. Most athletes set they “whereabout time”, early in the morning and at home to avoid missing tests, as their would be in bed. So, if I had a knock on the door at 6am in the morning, typically I would open the door to an official WADA anti-doping officer, and I would welcome him to be tested.
This was a great strategy, except when I am in competition. In 2006, I remember I was in a busy training and competition period. I had decided to compete in athletics meeting abroad and my agent had booked an early (and very cheap!) flight to get me to the event location on time.
I am usually very organised and methodical about my kit, my sponsored items, my event passes and all the paraphernalia essential for a competition. As I left my apartment at 5:30am I had remembered everything, except to update my whereabouts on the drug testing website. As I sat waiting for the flight to depart, I saw the text come though, and my heart sank. The drug testing team had chosen that day to randomly arrive at my apartment and I had missed test.
It was my fault. An athlete, despite the Team GB support, the athlete is 100% accountable for their actions with regarding drugs taking and drug testing. It was an honest but silly mistake and one that I learnt from very quickly. From that point on, I made updating my whereabouts as part of my preparation process and routine. At the time, If you miss 3 tests then an athlete can incur a three month ban which is a disaster for both training and competition. I was lucky – but it was a mistake I never made again.
I believe that tackling mis-interpretation of the rules and drugs in sports starts with education. The future of the sport lies in the schools, colleges and training clubs across the country and across the world. At BISS Puxi we make a very clear and firm stance that cheating is unacceptable at any level of sport.
We also go a little bit further and talk about values in sports. This provide students a moral compass by which they can independently make the right decisions outside of school.
It’s easy to tell people to always follow the rules however, I know having competed at the highest level the strength of competition and temptation everyone is desperate to win. It is only with the bedrock of a firm moral compass to guide your decision making that makes sure young people follow the right path that will propel them and the sport they love to even greater heights.
To read other Marlon's blogs, please click here.