© Copyright – 2020 – Athletics Illustrated

The media invests a fair amount of resources reporting on corruption and doping within the sport of athletics. It seems that it is almost daily that another athlete somewhere in the world has been sanctioned. And the never-ending chase for justice in the wake of corruption bumps along in the slow-moving gears of justice.

Alan Brookes at 2014 Scotiabank Vancouver Half Marathon. Photo credit: Christopher Kelsall/Athletics Illustrated
Alan Brookes at 2014 Scotiabank Vancouver Half Marathon. Photo credit: Christopher Kelsall/Athletics Illustrated

Athletes get banned and sometimes the ban ends their career. Or an athlete makes a comeback, but their career is forever shrouded in doubt, for example, twice-suspended Justin Gatlin, who continues to sprint into his late 30s at the top of his game.

We know how fans and clean athletes feel about doping in sport, but what about a marathon race director? It is a serious business and the prize money that is awarded is difficult to get back from cheaters. Clean athletes are being robbed. Cheaters are being caught, but more needs to be done.

Alan Brookes, race director and president of the Canada Running Series and the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon got a first-hand look this year of the long arm of the law at work. It took time, but justice prevailed in getting to the bottom of a suspicious performance and subsequent athlete duplicity.

Asked how it makes him feel regarding the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) catching marathon runner Etaferahu Temesgen Wodaj from Ethiopia, he told Athletics Illustrated, “It makes me feel good. Prior to Seb Coe’s election as president of the IAAF/World Athletics (WA) in 2015, the sport was rife with corruption and the scourge of doping. I think the extraordinary case of Etaferahu Wodaj who failed an anti-doping test at Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, underscores the remarkable efforts and the meaningful difference that the Athletics Integrity Unit and WA with Brett Clothier is making.”

Wodaj was caught a web of deceit after testing positive for Erythropoietin (EPO) at the Toronto Marathon.

Brett Clothier has his work cut out for him

In June of 2017, Clothier was appointed as the head of the AIU. It was Coe who launched the AUI, in April that year. Prior to the AIU appointment, Clothier was one of Australia’s leaders in sport integrity.

He established and led the Australian Football League (AFL)’s Integrity Unit for more than eight years, Clothier also spent four years as legal counsel to the Integrity Services Department of Racing Victoria.

As the head of AIU, he has been challenged, for example, Kenya has become a handful. The previously thought pristine culture of athletics in the Rift Valley turned out to be one rife with doping. Currently, approximately 50 Kenyans are banned or are provisionally banned from competing. That is second only to Russia, who is under a complete ban for systematic doping. Save for 10 neutral Russian spots, no Russians are permitted to compete internationally.

Recently, it was announced that athletes that are serving a four-year ban, will be permitted to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games when they happen in 2021, should the suspension expire by then. There is nothing Clothier can do about that.

“The standard penalty under the WADA code for doping is a four-year ban,” Clothier told Reuters. “And that’s been designed that way to tie in with the Olympic cycle.

“But in this case, of course, it’s an anomaly that the Olympics have moved so some athletes will benefit from that.”

Clothier was surprised when he realized the level of cheating that goes on in the sport of athletics.

The AIU with Clothier at the helm continues unabated to go after dopers, with tools such as the Athlete Biological Passport, in-competition and out-of-competition testing and the whereabouts program, it appears change is afoot.

Brookes has a positive outlook. “And we are all working together to make progress. The Label Programme from WA requires us to test a minimum of 12 athletes, and the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport and Athletics Canada comes in during race week to do blood work as well as urine analysis for the programme. While the in-competition testing that caught Wodaj at STWM remains important, it is really the huge investment of Label races, athlete managers and athletes in the out-of-competition testing that has become so important in building biological passports and catching the dopers.”

Over the past 10 years or more, Brookes and his team built STWM into a major international marathon. The competition is high and for Canadians, Toronto provides an opportunity for qualification into international events. In the 2019 edition, Calgary’s Trevor Hofbauer ran a 2:09:51 to become the second Canadian in history to go sub-2:10. The first was Vancouver Island’s Cameron Levins in a dramatic comeback from years of injury in 2018 he took the national record from Jerome Drayton by finishing Toronto in 2:09:25.

In 2013, Lanni Marchant broke the national record with her 2:28:00 performance to better Sylvia Ruegger’s long-standing time of 2:28:36. That day Krista DuChene also bettered Ruegger’s time finishing 32 seconds after Marchant. Those performances seemed to open the floodgates as Canadian women have been running well in the marathon ever since including Rachel Cliff taking the record to 2:26:56 in 2019, which was bettered by Malindi Elmore in 2020 to 2:24:50.

Toronto has been good for Canadians.

Cameron Levins breaking Canadian marathon record. Photo credit: Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon
Cameron Levins breaking Canadian marathon record. Photo credit: Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon

“We’re really proud of the platform it has provided for the career-development of our Canadian distance runners, and the opportunity it has provided for them to test themselves against top international athletes,” said Brookes. “We feel it has been invaluable in providing top international competition on a friendly, supportive, media-aware Canadian stage. When our Canadian athletic champions and heroes got to major games or other world marathons, they are going to be toeing the line against the best in the world, and I think it’s been a great experience and learning opportunity to do this on home soil in Toronto.  We feel the excitement surrounding the many thrilling Canadian performances we’ve seen at STWM has been great for the sport in general. And so, I think we collectively feel good as we work hard to be part of the WA/AC team rooting out doping cheats and restoring and maintaining the “integrity” of the competition as the AIU name implies.”

Brookes feels that from the administrative and marketing perspective, there are positive signs. He shared that fans and people involved with the sport would be naïve and delusional to think that doping was not a chronic, systemic scourge in the sport.

“But enormous, positive strides are being seen to be made by the AIU, WA and all of us playing our part. The effect of the OOC testing has been huge, combined with the WA Label programme’s establishing of a pool of athletes for Platinum and Gold races who are defined for the year ahead and then tested multiple times throughout the year, out-of-competition in addition to the in-competition, to create a “clean” athlete pool. We hope that with continued publicity and awareness of these efforts, clean athletes can feel increasingly confident that they’re competing on a fair playing field, and organizers the same.”

The athletes continue to push the boundaries to get away with cheating. Victor Conte head of the former Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative shared in detail how simple it is for athletes to miss an out-of-competition test, make up for it, but during the intervening break allow performance-enhancing drugs flush from the system, thereby testing negative.

Wodaj’s efforts were extensive. She earned a 12-year ban for forging a medical certificate, using a fake doctor who was claimed to be working from a clinic that was no longer in operation. Clothier will continue to have his work cut out for him and Brookes knows that as slow as the wheels of justice must be sometimes, the work being done in the long term is beneficial to the sport.

“So, I think Wodaj’s disqualification is cause for a small celebration that progress is being made.  The concern remains now that there are many races in Canada and globally that don’t do in-competition testing and are not part of the critical OOC testing programmes of the WA/AIU or member federations. Increasingly, we feel that it is becoming harder and harder to cheat in the top races. But will the dopers just move down the line to races where they can feel they won’t be caught? Etaferahu Wodaj is an important, small step and a message to dopers as to the lengths we will go to root out the cheats, but there is still much work to be done.”