Across a career spanning more than two decades, Britain’s Paula Radcliffe wrote herself into the history of distance running. After years as a world class cross country runner and a perennial if somewhat luckless fixture in global track finals, she switched to the marathon in 2002. The same year, she set a world record in Chicago that stands to this day.
The fast times, the medals and the near misses are only one side to Radcliffe’s story, however. Throughout her career, she earned a reputation as a bold critic of the sport’s authorities and of doping cheats. She publicly protested the presence of Russian athlete Olga Yegorova, who had failed a test for blood cell-boosting drug EPO, at the world championships in Edmonton in 2001, and wearing a red ribbon in competition to support blood testing. She has experienced the complexities of the doping discussion from a different perspective, too, when a leak revealed what turned out to be legitimate abnormalities in three of her own blood samples.
Now retired, Radcliffe works as a broadcaster for the BBC and lives with her family in Monte Carlo, where she met SportsPro during the Sportel media convention to discuss London 2017 and the presentation of athletics, the state of the anti-doping movement, and the future of the sport.
SportsPro: What are your reflections now on London 2017?
Paula Radcliffe: I think it was really well done. I think everybody had a lot of expectations after 2012. Would it live up to those? Athletics has kind of been through the mill since then as well. But I think it was really well supported, it was full stadiums all the time, there were some magic performances in there - there were some surprise ones as well, which always adds to the magic of it - and then to finish off with the relay boys, that kind of helped from the domestic side of it.
But I think the London organisers can be very proud of themselves. There were some difficult times, too, with the Isaac Makwala story [where the Botswanan sprinter was controversially withdrawn from the 400m through illness and then belatedly reinstated for the 200m], and everything like that, but I think generally it was a good fans’ event. If you’re a fan of athletics I think you will have enjoyed watching, either on the TV or in the stadium, and it came across very well on the television.
It puts athletics in an interesting light, because there have been plenty of discussions about the difficulty of delivering athletics as a spectator sport and, of course, the next World Championships are going to Doha, which is not a big, international spectator-friendly market. So what are some of the lessons you think the sport needs to take out of London?
I think, not just out of London, but the sport needs to take a big look at the last six, seven, eight World Championships, Olympic Games, where they’ve been held and how well they’ve come across, and how the stadiums have been full, the atmosphere, what the reaction of both the athletes and the public was to each of them. And then it needs to carefully think out, it needs to not go where the money is, it needs to ask, where’s the best place for athletics? Where it’s going to be the best atmosphere, where it’s going to give the athletes the best stage to perform on.
You’ve now got the perspective of being a broadcaster, and a bit more of an overview of the whole event than you did when you were an athlete, but when you were on the circuit, how much did you find athletes respond to that kind of thing?
Oh, hugely. And I don’t think it’s that different, to be honest, because as a broadcaster, you feed off the energy in the stadium, too, as much as the athletes do. And if there is no energy, it’s dead. And it was pretty amazing in Rio, for example, that we got a world record in the women’s 10,000 metres, because the stadium was pretty much empty which meant there was no atmosphere to draw on, which made that performance even more phenomenal. But there was nobody there to appreciate it, and I think it could have been so much bigger somewhere different.
First and foremost, athletes have to be able to believe that their sport is being protected and that they’re being looked after.
So you’ve got to kind of bring it together. The athletes want it to be somewhere that’s going to be conducive to good conditions, conducive to a good performance, but also to have an amazing atmosphere to draw on. As commentators, we’re less bothered by the conditions, but we want there to be a great atmosphere in the stadium, because it makes good TV and it makes it exciting.
With that in mind, there have been conversations led by Lord Coe, the IAAF president, and people around the sport as well and organisations adjacent to it about how you present athletics. How much do athletes need to be a part of those conversations?
They need to be a huge part of it and I am not sure they’re enough a part of it. Too often they’re told about changes to their events, changes to the way it is formatted, and by then the changes have been made. And they should be giving a key input into it, because if you don’t have the athletes supporting it, you don’t really have anything to present. So it has to be key.
First and foremost, athletes have to be able to believe that their sport is being protected and that they’re being looked after, that their interests are the key interests. Then they can help promote it, and they can then suggest ideas. But too often, they’re not asked.
Radcliffe runs to world championship gold in the marathon in Helsinki in 2005
You were a distance runner and ended your career in the marathon, so you were used to that experience of going out into streets and your event being taken to people. Is that something you imagine having a big part in how athletics could be presented?
Yes, absolutely. I think that street athletics can bring that extra dimension. What I loved about the marathon was that you almost took the crowd of the stadium outside and it evolves, it’s bigger. It’s still a mass participation race that you’re taking part in with so many other people, but the crowds are right there and you’re very close to them all.
I think for that reason street athletics is less intimidating, too, for youngsters - to take their first step in front of a stadium can be quite scary, but I think with street athletics, it’s much easier, much more accessible, and it modernises it a bit. It puts a different twist on it— particularly for field events, it’s slightly different in the street.
Nike, which has sponsored you through most of your career, created the Breaking2 event earlier in the year, with three of the world’s best male marathon runners trying to break the two-minute mile in artificially optimised conditions. So it wasn’t strictly speaking an ‘athletics’ event even though it was an athletic event. Do you think that’s going to be a part of how people understand athletics, particularly given that so much of how participation is sold is around performance rather than around competition? Will that be appealing to athletes or is it always going to be a kind of subsidiary of competing?
See, I think it’s a little bit of both. While we accept that technology helps us perform better, probably the thing most of us as runners love is that competitive element, so that part of it being a pure and simple sport, is who runs it the quickest, who is the winner. And sometimes I think you can force things a little bit too much.
And the thing about the two hours is, because the barrier is there, it looks like it’s touchable, but it’s actually a kilometre away still on the world record side. And while I really thought it was amazing watching, having been honoured to watch him Eliud Kipchoge run as well as he did, and run as fast as he did, that was huge - but it was almost a little bit of a failure, because he didn’t do it. And what he did was a huge performance, so if you hadn’t changed a couple of things that made it illegal, you would have had one world record that was without doubt - he’s ahead of his time and he’s amazing and he should have that world record but he’s almost sacrificed it to go after that other goal.
It adds a bit of confusion at a time when we maybe don’t need that confusion in our sport. So for me, I’m always more for sticking to the rules, the competition - keep it clean.
On the subject of keeping it clean, let’s talk about another thing that’s been something you’ve been incredibly involved in, which is the conversation around anti-doping. What state do you feel that that campaign is in, broadly speaking, within athletics?
I think it’s definitely moved on a lot. I mean, if I look at how it’s moved on from Edmonton, when I held a sign up there; when I was competing in the red ribbon in 1998 - then, people were like, ‘Yeah, we believe what you’re saying but we don’t think what we say is going to make any difference so we’re not going to bother saying anything.’
Now we’ve gone around and the athletes have realised: ‘OK, this is our sport, this our reputation, this is our image and we have to do something to make sure that the powers that be understand that first and foremost they have to protect us.’ Every athlete has the right to not have their performance doubted, and to be able to prove that they’re clean, and to know that they’re competing on a level playing field. And I don’t think we’re quite there yet, but I do think we’re getting there a lot more now than we were even two years ago.
But a lot needs to be done. And if you ask which area needs to be most invested in now, when Seb, Lord Coe, is talking about investing in the media and making sure the sport goes to the right places, first you’ve got to restore the credibility and then think about those things. Because the rest kind of look after themselves once you’ve got the following and once you’ve got that belief in the sport.
You were always quite outspoken through your career while you were competing. Is that something that athletes have been tentative about because it draws questions about their own motives, or it draws questions about the relationship between what they’re saying and how they’re performing?
I honestly don’t think it was so much that. I think that, sadly, there may have been some athletes who used it as a little bit of a smoke screen to draw attention away from what they were doing. I think more from the clean athletes, they weren’t standing up and doing anything because they felt that it was going to take energy away.
To be able to go and compete against someone that you might have serious doubts about but you’ve got no proof, if you start verbalising that, in your own head you’re putting up a reason why they can beat you and you can’t do that because you’ve got to go and beat them. So you’ve got to be very, very strong to talk about it as a problem and then go out and still try and race them. It’s a hard thing to do, and I think now people are starting to realise that it’s still something they have to do and actually, they get stronger, by verbalising, they become a stronger person and more likely to beat the people who are cheating.
Given how much of the progress that’s been made in breaking really big cases has come through whistle-blowers and through people who’ve been willing to step forward and take considerable personal risk, do you feel like there’s enough protection in sport for those people?
No. I don’t think there’s quite enough protection. And I also think that avenue of the intelligence side of it has not been explored enough. So I think that’s the way forward. Science-wise, we can try and improve the testing, but the actual way to get the bigger gains is on that intelligence side, by using the whistle-blowers, by using the intelligence, but by not publicising any of that until you are 100 per cent certain that the people you’re after are doing something wrong and that they are cheating. Because you can’t have innocents caught up; you can’t just go around accusing somebody that beats you all the time.
The athletes have realised: ‘OK, this is our sport, this our reputation, this is our image and we have to do something to make sure that the powers that be understand that first and foremost they have to protect us.’
It’s got to be done in the right way, and in an intelligent way. But moving forward, by using whistle-blowers, by using information, to using FBI-tracking, Interpol, things like that, that’s definitely the way forward I believe, to be a bigger deterrent, and then also by financially hitting the cheats big time.
Radcliffe preparing for BBC TV athletics coverage in the UK with Gabby Logan
London 2017 started with a series of presentations to athletes from previous World Championships, taking medals that had initially gone to now-disqualified athletes. This was a period of your career where you were heavily active, and a lot of your peers and team-mates have been awarded medals. How does that feel as a competitor? Does it feel like a wrong has been righted or does it bring it all up again?
I think it feels like a wrong has been not fully righted, but righted in some way. I think it shows how much the sport has moved on that they’re willing to do that, because they also take a hit to the credibility of the sport by doing it. But they’ve recognised that the rights of those people who lost out there are bigger than the image of the sport at that time.
The image of the sport can actually grow stronger by righting those wrongs; I’d like to see it do so even further. I would like to see no statute of limitations - it’s eight or ten years, I’d like to see that as long as there’s something left to test, keep testing it. If the proof is there outside of the actual doping tests, like what’s coming to light with the Chinese now more recently, that kind of thing. If that proof is there, use it. Any proof that would stand up in a court of law - the East Germans, that kind of proof - if it will stand up, then use it.
Let’s try and finish on a more positive and more forward-looking note. There were a lot of athletes in the British team in London who put in very strong performances but got fourths and fifths. That’s an experience you had in the early part of your career as well. When they’re going into global championships in the next few years, how do they overcome that? Is there a systemic element to that, or is that all about individual performance and belief and so on?
For some of them, it depends which way you look at it. For the ones who didn’t expect to even make the final, to finish fourth or fifth, that’s huge for them, and I don’t think they need to overcome anything. They’ve got to harness that and use it to build on it. Like: “If I made that jump the last time, that’s a little jump to go from fourth to there. So I need to train harder, but I don’t need to overstress it because that’s going to come.”
For the ones that just missed out, then it’s learning to channel that frustration that they felt at being fourth or fifth into preparation, and into making sure that any little mistakes that were made the last time aren’t made the next time.
Finally, what do you think is the potential for athletics, both in the UK and around the world?
I think the potential is huge. I mean, I’m biased, because it’s the sport that I love, but I think it is a beautiful sport, and it has so much going for it and it can be so powerful.
I think it has to be looked after right. It can’t be abused by the people in power. It’s not their sport. All they’re doing is looking after it for the athletes taking part and those athletes are continually changing, but what you need to do is look after the platform, and look after their rights while they’re on that platform performing.