Paula Radcliffe cannot clean the slate of suspicion

Philip Hersh
Chicago Tribune
Sport's dirty history means no one should say for sure an athlete like Paula Radcliffe is clean

In the past two days, a leading U.S. road racing consultant and a deservedly respected British journalist have declared categorically that marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe never has used banned performance-enhancing drugs.

"There is no chance -none- that @paulajradcliffe used PED's. If you think that, you simply don't know her at all," tweeted David Monti, athlete coordinator for the New York Marathon.

"Paula Radcliffe is a clean athlete," wrote Mike Rowbottom in a story on insidethegames.biz.

I wish I could say that about her or anyone else.

That doesn’t mean I think Radcliffe has taken PEDs or was lying when she told Britain’s ITN this week, "There will never be any evidence that will ever come out that would ever threaten any faith people have ever put in me."

The problem is no one can be sure, and it would be foolhardy to claim otherwise.

Lack of direct evidence is not an ironclad defense, as became abundantly clear in the cases of Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong.  Both swore they had never cheated and were forced to come clean only under the crushing weight of legal pressure (Jones) and the multiple testimonies of others (Armstrong).

That leaves athletes like Radcliffe with the unenviable – and likely impossible – task of trying to outrun media and public suspicion that is both necessary and natural given the doping history in sports like track and field, cycling and baseball.

It compelled her not only to defend herself in the TV interview but also to issue a 1,716-word statement in reaction to a question in a Tuesday British Parliament hearing on doping that Radcliffe said had effectively implicated her, "tarnishing my reputation."

Radcliffe’s name never came up in the hearing, but she felt an MP’s statement about British winners or medalists at the London Marathon "being under suspicion for very high levels of blood doping" pointed the finger at her.

Those suspicions about dozens of athletes, one long rumored to be Radcliffe, grew out of reports by the Sunday Times and German broadcaster ARD, with the most recent stories based on leaked documents containing test values for some 5,000 athletes. Scientists asked by the media outlets to study the documents found many of the numbers suggestive of blood doping.

Then the international track federation announced Aug. 11 that re-analysis of urine samples from the 2005 and 2007 world championships had found 28 more athletes with doping positives.

Sources familiar with the new IAAF cases have told me that Radcliffe is not among them, which meant there was no reason for me to discuss the rumors until she did it herself Tuesday.

The Sunday Times had fueled the fire by saying the list of suspicious athletes included "household names," of which there are precious few in track and field. Radcliffe’s statement addressed three test results involving her "referred to by the Sunday Times."

Only one of those cases, Radcliffe said, had results even "marginally above" the threshold that leads to questions about blood doping or use of the blood doping agent EPO. She explained that case by citing circumstances that could legitimately invalidate the results.

The ITN reporter asked Radcliffe, who retired from competition this year, about the other result that has created doubt: the still standing marathon world record, 2 hours, 15 minutes, 25 seconds, she set in 2003.

That she is the only person who has run within three minutes of that time gives it a too-good-to-be-true appearance in a world where such achievements draw reactions of "how?" as well as "wow!"

"Isn’t one of the problems your marathon world record is three minutes faster than anyone else?" the reporter asked.

"How am I supposed to answer that?" replied Radcliffe, who also set a world record of 2:17:18 to win the 2002 Chicago Marathon.  "It’s not something I would ever reproach myself for. . .I would never ever regret running that fast.

"Other than running fast, what reason have they got to put me in this position? They’re not asking Usain Bolt to justify why he set a world record."

Not true. Since his world-record-shattering performances in the 100 and 200 meters, Bolt has been asked frequently about why people should believe he was clean, especially because his country, Jamaica, has been shown lax in its doping control efforts.

When I wrote a story last fall about why Radcliffe's 2:15:25 mark had lasted so long while the men’s marathon record had been broken six times over that span, it included no doping questions. I still wonder if that omission was justified, naive or both.

Are Radcliffe and Bolt legitimate outliers, the exceptions who redefine the possible? There is no reason to dismiss that hypothesis out of hand.

Part of Radcliffe’s discomfiting position may owe to her acting as the conscience of her sport, "Saint Paula" if you will, especially when she joined in holding up a sign saying "EPO Cheats Out" at the 2001 World Championships.

Radcliffe disingenuously claimed the message was directed at no one in particular. But it clearly referred to the Russian, Olga Yegorova, who won the world 5,000 in 2001 after her apparently positive test for EPO earlier that season was thrown out on a technicality.

Sadly for her and her sport, Radcliffe wound up in a no-win situation this week. Her silence had not quieted the rumors. Her long, forceful statement left an impression that the lady doth protest too much.

Is she clean? All anyone can say with certainty is it is not impossible.

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