Mike Rowbottom

There is a cruel irony in the fact that an investigation alleging widespread doping abuse in athletics, prompted at least in part by laudable motives, should have turned into a story about an athlete who is innocent of any such charge.

Paula Radcliffe is a clean athlete.  Having followed her and written about her throughout the bulk of her long and increasingly illustrious career, that is what I have always believed, and nothing I have seen or heard since the investigations publicised in recent weeks by ARD TV and the Sunday Times has convinced me to doubt it.

Paula Radcliffe en route to her final London Marathon as an elite athlete in April this year ©Getty Images
Paula Radcliffe during her final London Marathon as an elite athlete in April this year ©Getty Images

The most eloquent testimony in her defence is her own statement - pained, painstaking - in which she addresses the detail of the smeary mess of allegation against her and refutes it convincingly.

As she says in her statement: “WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) themselves have again investigated following the recent articles. I understand the team from WADA found nothing and I fully expect that once the Independent Committee publish their report I will again be found to have no case to answer.”

As I understand it, while rumours that the “household name” implicated by the Sunday Times was Paula Radcliffe were circulating, the WADA team were asked to put one analysis to the top of their list, and have clearly done so.

Do we believe, when that report is published, that WADA will ignore or gloss over evidence that points towards illegal blood doping?  Especially given the huge focus of interest in this particular case?

It seems clear that the ambivalence about Radcliffe’s modus operandi rested on three blood scores, two of which, were they presented today, would be ineligible as data anyway because the sample was taken less than two hours after competition.

“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," said Radcliffe. "All of these three cases followed periods of altitude training.

“Only one of my blood test scores is marginally above the 1 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 1 in 1000 threshold as was claimed by the Sunday Times and that which is seen as suspicion of doping. No abnormalities were ultimately found and any allegation that the IAAF did not follow up on blood data results in my case is false.

“Further, not one of the values questioned by the Sunday Times occurred around any of my best performances or races, including all my appearances at the London Marathon.”

Really, this is all that need be said. The science on which these allegations were based appears more and more clearly to have been bad science, making damaging assertions from fragments of information which, in themselves, were effectively meaningless. It is as if the scientists employed by the Sunday Times have attempted to construct a sentence out of just one letter.

The high point - Radcliffe sets the world record which stands today in winning he 2003 London marathon in 2hr 15min 25sec ©Getty Images
The high point - Paula Radcliffe sets the world record which stands today in winning the 2003 London Marathon in 2 hours 15min 25sec ©Getty Images

What is distasteful about this latest effort to identify those guilty of doping abuses in athletics - and other parts of this investigation, particularly those concerning systematic abuses within the Russian system appear to have done the sport much good by hitting the mark - is the way in which individual competitors have felt compelled or obligated to release personal data in order to underline their innocence.

Liz McColgan’s daughter Eilish, an international 3,000 metres steeplechaser against whom never a wisp of an accusation has been laid, was one who made public some of her blood testing data a few weeks back. As she added, cheerily, she hadn’t a clue what it all meant.

And there’s one big problem. It’s not as if releasing a mass of personal data is going to be immediately assimilable. Such data is now part of an ongoing scientific process of evaluation as part of the Athlete Biological Passport – establishing personal markers, then observing the variations which may or may not indicate wrongdoing.

But there’s another problem. Why should Mo Farah, Eilish McColgan, Paula Radcliffe, whoever, be leveraged by time-honoured journalistic means into releasing personal data? What guarantee would or do they have that such data will be responsibly or even competently analysed?

The world marathon record holder refers in her statement to  how she “wrestled long and hard with a desire to speak out with the true facts” concerning her position.

I hope I am not breaking a confidence when I say I have seen some of that anguish at first hand. I have witnessed Radcliffe in many modes down the years – as a young cross-country runner patently giving her all, as a track athlete offering the same honest and painful efforts, missing out again and again on the glittering prizes, and as an athlete finally coming into her own, at cross country and then on the roads, where her career was always heading, and where she has maximised her talent through unrelenting, painstaking, obsessional efforts, much of them undertaken at altitude in her Font Romeu training base.

But I have never seen her looking hunted before, and it was an ugly sight.

An agonised Radcliffe misses out on a medal at the 2001 IAAF World Championships in Edmonton as an Ethiopian trio headed by Derartu Tulu take the 10,000m medals. It was a pattern which repeated itself on the track many times before she found succes on the roads ©Getty Images
An agonised Paula Radcliffe misses out on a medal at the 2001 IAAF World Championships in Edmonton as an Ethiopian trio headed by Derartu Tulu take the 10,000m medals, a pattern which repeated itself on the track many times before she found success on the roads ©Getty Images

There have been many messages of support for Radcliffe in the wake of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s Parliamentary hearing into the blood doping allegations made by ARD and the Sunday Tiimes, at which the Committee’s chairman, Jesse Norman, effectively suggested she was involved, although he has since sought to justify his words and claims that no names were mentioned.

He asked some of those appearing at the Committee how they felt “when you hear that the London Marathon, potentially the winners or medallists of the London Marathon, potentially British athletes, are under suspicion for very high levels of blood doping.”

For Radcliffe, that narrowed it down pretty much to her. No other Briton has won the London Marathon since McColgan in 1996, which pre-dates the blood samples referred too.

Norman has been called an idiot and worse. But however slack and ill-judged his words, that is a sideshow. What matters is that an innocent party has been unfairly accused.