Guest blog: I’m an elite athlete. Why did nobody offer me drugs?

Day two of our guest blogs: please welcome 400m runner Andrew Steele.

Andrew ran for Team GB at Beijing 2008, reaching the semi-finals of the 400m before helping Britain to fourth in the 4x400m relay.

In 2011, he wrote compellingly for BBC Sport about life as British athletics’ “nearly man”, dogged by injury and Epstein-Barr virus. Now, in the middle of the current drugs-in-athletics crisis, he has a troubling question to ask.

Andrew Steele
By Andrew Steele

Should I be offended nobody ever offered me performance-enhancing drugs?

Everyone’s talking about doping in athletics at the moment. Considering the recent news, it’s not surprising. There are in excess of 19 billion blogs about doping now in circulation.

The general narrative has ranged from melodramatic despair to a cacophony of groin-grabbingly colossal generalisations. “The sport of track and field is now DEAD!” has been a popular theme.

Though despair is indeed the correct emotion, histrionic proclamations are not. Not only are they untrue, they serve little purpose to resolve or explain the problem to fans of the sport.

That said, the recent positive tests do come at an extremely inconvenient time. It’s a matter of days before the World Championships begin and the sport had been smugly surfing a mavericks-esque wave since the splendour of London 2012. Now, thanks to the work of Messrs Gay and Powell (the second and fourth-fastest men of all time in the 100m, no less), the casual fan may be tempted to believe the sport is riddled with drug cheats. That it’s rife. That, to use a favourite phrase of the guilty, “everybody is doing it.”

Is this really the case? Is the sport in an early-noughties-Tour-de-France anything-goes state? Or is it the case that those caught are by default among the highest-profile athletes, giving a false impression to the public that doping in track and field is as common as a sweat patch in the summer?

The truth is, nobody really knows what other athletes are up to behind closed doors. But, I’ve been competing as an international athlete now for almost 10 years and I’ve formed an opinion based on the experiential evidence I’ve been exposed to.

Taking performance-enhancing drugs is not something you stumble across. To cheat in sport, you make a decision to find a way to cheat. You are either such a coward that you’re too scared to lose (in which case I would wager that sport isn’t the best career choice) or you are too greedy to rightfully earn your living (in which case I would recommend much more lucrative ways to steal money – organised crime is fun, or even investment banking).

When I started to run a little faster than the average club-level athlete, I cast my mind ahead to how my future career might pan out. Alongside the standard fantasies of triumphant victories before huge crowds, there was also another more sinister vision lurking. In my mind sat one major question about the future. “At what point will someone approach me to offer performance-enhancing drugs?”

I entered the sport at professional level just as everybody’s favourite shameless soggy tadpole, Justin Gatlin, won Olympic gold in Athens without an ounce of purity. I wondered when some shady character might saunter alongside me and whisper “You know… if you really want to get ahead… if you really want to start running with the big boys, you should start using some of this, everybody’s doing it.”

The story I had been sown was that this moment was inevitable. I envisioned myself a lone crusader, standing up to this crooked track and field Fagan and declaring myself the single clean hope of international athletics, as the doping underworld glared begrudgingly from the sidelines.

Much to my bewilderment, that moment never came.

I was almost offended when I returned home from my first international championships without one single offer of illegal drugs. Oh what shame! Was I not good enough? What was I doing wrong? But this championship was only a junior affair, merely European-based at that, and it was perhaps unrealistic to expect the underworld to show itself just yet.

In the following years, shock-horror, I was let down again and again. I was repeatedly denied my sanctimonious moment of eschewal. The Commonwealth Games in Melbourne 2006 were fruitless, similarly the World Championships in Osaka 2007. What was going on? Perhaps I just hadn’t run quite fast enough to yet elicit the revelation of athletics’ ‘secret’ next level. So in 2008, while preparing to travel to the Beijing Olympic Games, I was almost certain the moment would arise. Surely I would present myself to the next tier of the athletics fraternity, on sport’s biggest stage, as a viable candidate. Surely!

Surprise, surprise, slimy drugs-man was not forthcoming. This leads me to accept that in reality, doping is maybe just not that common. At no point in my 10-year career has anyone even remotely mentioned the possibility of conceivably knowing someone whom might one day consider thinking about cheating. This is a far cry from the image portrayed.

Never have I stumbled across a syringe hastily discarded at a warm-up track, never have I seen an athlete warily emerge from a secret room, eyes darting side to side and I’ve certainly not once been made aware of a layer of drug-taking elitism that the convicted cheats tell us time and time again exists. As a result, I am very much given to disagree with the dreaded phrase, “everybody is doing it.”

So what does this tell us in regard to the recent positive tests? Perhaps the dirty side of the sport is going on anyway and there must have just been something about me that the cheating elite didn’t like. Maybe my face didn’t fit the bill, or could it be the circles I move in?

However, I have been around for a long time, working with a number of different coaches in a number of different countries. So where are these doping facilitators the guilty athletes tell us are so prevalent? It’s not as if I’m just a hobbyist going about the sport in an amateur old-school way. I’ve sought advice and consultations with dozens of high-level physiologists, doctors and nutritionists my entire career, and I’m a firm believer in the benefits of supplements to support my training. Not once would it even occur to me, or any of the people I’ve ever dealt with, to approach this “other way.”

So if I’ve been denied the opportunity to sanctimoniously refuse drug-taking, then you know what… I’m a little bit offended! Like the only person in a security queue not subjected to a body search – “What’s wrong with me? You don’t think I have to potential to be carrying a concealed weapon? Do I look THAT inconsequential? I’ve got a beard and everything, I could be dangerous I promise!”

But really, all misplaced offence aside, what this scenario illustrates is two things. Firstly, doping isn’t actually that rife in the sport of track and field; it’s just not the state of play as many have tried to spin it. And secondly, most importantly, one does not simply fall into doping.

The athlete has to ask. They have to proactively seek out a coach, doctor or even fellow athlete and say the words: “How do I cheat?” And for that, they deserve every word of anger or despair the industry can throw at them.

As a drug-tested athlete there always does, quite reasonably, lurk a small fear in the back of the head that any medicine, supplement or even food one eats could contain a banned substance, and snatch away your entire professional life in one go. But the reality, from the evidence I’ve been exposed to, is starkly different.

So now, whenever an athlete tests positive and we’re quickly ushered a statement with that most pathetic of all phrases – “I don’t know how this substance got in to my body,” or worse, “everybody’s doing it” – know not to believe it for a second. They made a choice to cheat, and they got caught.