Eilidh Child was a teenager when her athletics hero, Marion Jones, was accused of taking drugs.
It was an eye-opening moment for an aspiring athlete and one the Commonwealth silver medallist was reminded of this week as the dark cloud of cheating enveloped her sport again, thanks to devastating claims of systematic Russian doping and accusations of bribery and collusion involving senior former IAAF officials.
The IAAF are people we thought were on our side and were there to help the clean athleties but now we learn they might not be. That, for me, was the big shockEilidh Child
But the Scot says that simply giving into the despair of the developments would be handing victory to the cheats and has insisted that those in charge must hit back to ensure that clean competitors can again take centre stage without being subjected to unfair suspicion or denied their just rewards.
“I know that the people involved, those who have been involved in the systematic process of cheating, don’t love athletics because this is going to ruin the sport if it is not sorted out, and I just don’t understand. It is a shame because it is a sport I love and a sport I have loved since I was a kid, and now I do it as my job and it is heartbreaking that this is now the reputation it has. It is really sad.
“There are other athletes you are suspicious of, but you never really want to say anything because it just looks like sour grapes. But when most of it came out, the people least surprised were the athletes. The big thing for us has been the involvement of the IAAF and the bribes and the level of corruption. That has been the most disheartening thing for me. I just feel they are meant to be the good guys, they are supposed to be on the side of the clean athletes. That’s the gut-wrenching thing. These are people we thought were on our side and were there to help the clean athletes, but now we learn they might not be. That, for me, was the big shock, not the fact that there are cheats in the sport.”
She has seen the way that scandal has blighted other sports, with cycling subject to the same issues and with the latest polls revealing that a majority of a people now admit to a dwindling level of trust when it comes to track and field successes, she wants decisive action to be taken before the damage becomes irreversible.
“That’s a really sad thing because there are still so many brilliant performances by clean athletes, but there are assumptions if anyone is doing something really well, who comes out with a great time or jumps well. There will be questions and that is horrible and so unfair. For a clean athlete that is the worst thing in the world could accuse you of.
“The people who cheat are in it for the wrong reasons because they want the fame or the money and not because they want to be the best they can be or because they love the sport. But getting caught is not a big enough deterrent. People think ‘we will risk it because even if we get caught, we will be back in a year or two anyway’. That’s not right. Justin Gatlin won the diamond league and came second in the World Championships and he made a rake of money this year, and it is disheartening that someone who has been caught twice can still be getting so much out of the sport. That’s the trouble and it adds to the feeling that there is nobody on the side of the clean athletes.”
Growing up, there were always those individuals who risked their reputations on being discovered and a glut of nations involved, but, until now, they haven’t had their careers threatened. Child wants to see that change, insisting that stacking the odds more fairly will not wipe out cheating on its own but it will dilute the numbers willing to take the gamble.
“I know that Dwain Chambers says in his book that it was almost a case of making it a level playing field by cheating because it almost felt like everyone else was doing it, so why shouldn’t he. That’s what we need to eradicate, that feeling that cheating is the norm or that it is worth the risk of getting caught. The ban has to be big enough to deter people. There have to be big changes and it has to be done in a way that supports clean athletes.
“If it had been a lifetime ban, I think Dwain wouldn’t have done it because he does love the sport and it was down to frustration and impatience and, if the risk is too high, then more people won’t do it.”
Child wants more regular and stringent testing carried out worldwide and she wants temptation removed. The world 400m hurdles bronze medallist believes the best way to do that is to prevent the cheats returning to the sport.
“I believe they can’t make it a lifetime ban, but make it at least eight years, so that they can’t come back. I know athletes who have been out for one or two years through injury and you can still come back from that, and I don’t think drugs cheats should have that option. So, if it can’t officially be life, make it long enough so there is no chance of them getting back to the top.”
Having also called for a ban on Russian track and field athletes at next summer’s Olympics, in Rio, she says the message has to be a no-nonsense one if radical change is to be seen and clean athletes can again line up for major events consoled by the knowledge that their hard work has been worthwhile and that athletics is an even playing field.
“It is horrible that we are seeing more and more stories coming out, but, hopefully, it will lead to the clean up this sport needs. I know we have to be realistic. We are not going to catch everybody because they always seem to be that one step ahead, but we have to have a strong deterrent and make sure the risk is just too high for more of those who are swaying.”