Doping in Sport: Jim Lusted asks if Paula Radcliffe must prove her innocence

Date 12.11.2015

Another day, another story about doping in athletics. After the recent Athletics World Championships, dominated by the ‘good vs evil‘ rivalry between ‘poster boy’ Usain Bolt and twice convicted doper Justin Gatlin, we are now subjected to one of Britain’s all-time great athletes, long distance runner Paula Radcliffe, being once again implicated in doping allegations.

Over the last few days politicians have waded into the debate. A DCMS Parliamentary committee discussed a report published by the Sunday Times in August which presented data of abnormal blood levels from tests of hundreds of athletes. Some of these were Olympic medal winners, some from long distance events and some of them British. It didn’t take long for media hacks to put Radcliffe’s name back in the frame.

Radcliffe’s responses to these implicit allegations offer an insight into the peculiarities of sporting cultures. She has offered a number of statements and interviews, sometimes re-stating her innocence and sometimes claiming she should not have to ‘prove’ her innocence. In a recent interview with BBC Sport there is an obvious frustration about how to respond:

“I know that I’m clean, you’re [the interviewer] the one that has doubts and at the end of the day, I’m afraid, when it all boils down to it, is not my problem”

(Interview with BBC Sport 10 September 2015)

Is it Paula’s problem? Should she have to ‘prove’ her innocence? The principle of ‘innocent before proven guilty’ may hold sway elsewhere, but it is unlikely to wash in a social context like sport. Why, then, do we seem to demand these types of denials – or for those convicted of doping, remorseful apologies – so particularly from our sportsmen and women? What is it about sporting cultures that seems to need these types of moral certainties?

It could be because the world of sport, perhaps uniquely, remains heavily informed by ideas of fair play, morality, justice and meritocracy. These ideologies of ‘amateurism’ emerged from the Public Schools of Victorian Britain, whose masters saw sport as a place to provide a moral education – teaching its participants things like team work, leadership, winning, losing, playing by the rules and fair play. Although the rising professionalisation and commodification of sport across the world has challenged these principles, this amateurist ideology continues to inform many of the values that dominate sporting cultures today. The fact that sport needs these types of moral certainties – the ‘fair’ contest, the ‘meritocratic’ outcome, and the sanctioned ‘rule-breaker’ – suggests Radcliffe has little option other than to continue to re-iterate that she was, and always has been, a ‘clean’ athlete.