Fiona Doyle: Blanket bans necessary to tackle doping

Newstalk.com speaks to Irish Olympic swimmer Fiona Doyle about her Olympic experience and the scourge of dopers in sport

Fiona Doyle

Image: ©INPHO/James Crombie 

Approaching the turn in the 100m breaststroke heat, Fiona Doyle must have known she had put herself into contention for a place in the semi-final.

She sat in fourth position after some strong early swimming and prepared for one final push that would see her empty the tank for a chance to progress. Of those competing in the heats, only the top 16 would progress.

Over the final 50m, Yulia Efimova pulled clear of the field and the Russian powered home to book her place in the semi-final. Doyle's effort was not enough and she finished 20th overall from the heats, 0.26 seconds outside a top 16 finish.

Efimova had served a 16-month ban in 2014, after testing positive for for an anabolic steroid (7-keto-DHEA) during an out-of-competition test the year previous. She was stripped of her records, and cast out as a pariah in the world of swimming.

Further revelations of Russian state-sponsored doping appeared this year with the arrival of the McLaren Report which purported to have evidence of large scale doping of athletes in order to secure medals in World and European Championships as well as at the Olympic Games.

FINA, world swimming's governing body, failed to uphold a blanket ban on swimmers who had previously been caught doping after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) let sports federations decide if athletes should miss the Games. Efimova took her case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and was cleared to compete at the Olympics.

Only this year, she had a ban lifted against her after testing positive for the now banned meldonium.

"Cheaters are cheaters," Doyle told the Irish Times after missing out on a spot in the semi-final. "She [Efimova] has tested positive five times and she’s gotten away with it again. It’s like FINA keep going back on their word, and the IOC keep going back on their word."

After reflecting on the Games and spending some time at her family home in Limerick, the 24-year-old clarified that she didn't blame the Russian for missing out on a place in the top 16.

"You know, I actually didn’t read any articles or read any social media for about a week and a half after racing," she tells Newstalk.com. "What I was hearing was really from other people. But I know what I said.

"I initially did the interview with RTE and they had asked about how I felt about the race. As I was walking through the media zone, there were hundreds of media people there. Everyone was looking for answers to specific questions around the drugs and when I said the quote ‘cheaters are cheaters’ - yes I was upset about my performance - but I 100% stand by what I said.

"I don’t think it’s fair that clean athletes are constantly having to battle against politics surrounding drugs. We keep being told that we’re in a clean sport but as it turns out, unfortunately, the girl I was racing - the Russian - has tested positive five times. This isn’t the first time she has tested positive. She had been banned before and there are a lot of other swimmers who have been doing that. That’s not just Russia, it’s in other countries as well.

"It’s not fair for clean athletes who are doing everything that they possibly can to try get far, and to push themselves as far as they can and train their butts off, to stand up on those blocks and know that there are other people on drugs. Knowing there are people taking their spot away.

"I know my performance had nothing to do with her. How I performed was down to mistakes that I made and I 100% take that on board myself. She didn’t take a spot from me, if she wasn’t there I still wouldn’t have made the semi-finals.

"My comments were not made out of anger, they were based on fact. This is the reality that we are facing. It’s not fair that we have to face it."

There are constant discussions regarding how to deal with dopers and those who challenge the integrity of sport, in particular amateur sport, and Doyle explains that, although it would be an unpalatable move for world federations and governing bodies, a blanket ban looks to be the only solution.

"I had this discussion the other day with my family and I think a blanket ban is the only way to go.

"That girl [Efimova] turned around three years ago now and said ‘oh someone gave me a supplement and I trusted them, I didn’t know I was taking drugs’ when the drug was listed on the box.

"She’s been tested for probably the last six to eight years. I’ve been tested for the last six to eight years and I know everything that I put in my body is my responsibility. At the end of the day, no matter what it is, if I’ve taken it before, I make sure that my supplements have gone through a testing routine.

"She knows it too, everyone knows it. I think the only way to clamp down on it is to make a blanket ban. I know that there are some cases which fall through the cracks. We had our own case in Ireland where a swimmer took - I think it was a vicks inhaler - and the inhaler was totally OK to take in Ireland, but was banned in the United States. So I can understand that there are cases like that can happen.

"There was a case in Canada where a batch of supplements was contaminated, but unfortunately the swimmer still got a ban because the supplement - although shown to be contaminated - wasn’t from a clean supplier. The supplement he was taking wasn’t being tested on a regular basis.

"You do have that form of responsibility, and sometimes it is hard and you get caught out, but at the end of the day everything you put in your body is up to you. If you get caught shopping that becomes your responsibility. You have to be vigilant and there is only one way to stop it: ban people from the Olympics because at least in swimming, the Olympics is the be all and end all.

"World Championships are great and European Championships are fantastic as well, but at the end of the day you want to go to the Olympics as a swimmer.

"I think if there’s that fear that if you couldn’t go because you have tested positive, it will definitely make people think twice."

Fiona Doyle dejected after her race in Rio. Image: ©INPHO/James Crombie 

And while swimmers will continue to voice their concerns and outrage over letting repeat offenders compete in the Games, she insists it is imperative that tough action must come from the governing bodies.

"[Change] has to come from the top down. As swimmers we’re starting to bring more attention to the public and to the media about how bad it actually is. But if changes are going to be made, they need to come from the top.

"Unfortunately FINA didn’t step up and the IOC didn’t step up at the Olympic Games to ensure that everything they possibly could have done was done to make sure that we weren’t racing against cheaters."

The Rio Olympics was hit with a number of controversies in the build up to the Games this year and faced further, much more vocal, criticism when - after a report by The Guardian emerged regarding possible corruption in Olympic boxing - a number of highly questionable decisions went in favour of Russian boxers.

Ireland's Michael Conlan, a World Champion in his weight class, was adjudged to have been beaten by Vladimir Nikitin, despite dominating all three rounds.

In the wake of such controversies, has the Olympic name been tarnished?

"I think in some ways it has, but mostly what it’s done is opens people’s eyes to how much politics is actually involved in sport. I mean, I always knew there was politics involved in sport but it wasn’t until I actually went to the Olympics to be faced with the reality of how much is involved.

"People have started to realise that it’s not just about the athletes. In some cases we’re given the ‘honour’ to go and represent our country instead of us deserving to go.

"There is so much politics involved for athletes that you might be the best in the world, and you still might not achieve those heights. That’s definitely going to force the IOC to make changes. International bodies like these are starting to realise that people won’t stand for it.

"Boxing is an example of that. People are not going to stand for the carry on that did happen at the Olympic Games. I’ve talked to those boxers, and met them, and I’ve talked to the coaches. My heart goes out to them.

"I understand, as an athlete, how much work goes in to get them to where they want to go. To be denied that when it wasn’t down to you is heartbreaking. At least in my place it was down to a clock. I didn’t produce what I should have, and I take that responsibility myself. But the case with Michael [Conlan], he did everything that he possibly could and even though he did win the fight, the decision wasn’t down to him. It wasn’t down to his skill, it was down to humans and human beings."

Doyle will return to Canada in the coming weeks where she will resume training once again, but remains unsure whether or not she will target a second Olympics in Tokyo in four years' time.

"I’m still deciding in my career if I’ve got to keep going or stop. I’ve just kind of taken that break so I can think about it.

"I have finished my studies. I technically graduated there in June, although I wasn’t actually there to do the walk. I’m taking the year off. I will be heading back over to Canada and I’ll be doing some form of training, but whether that’s swimming... I just don’t know. But now I’m thinking ‘I’ve got the Olympics done, what am I going to do with my future?’

"I’m thinking about whether I want to swim or not, and what the planning will be for what I want to do next year."

And with such an experience under her belt, would she ever consider return to Ireland to help develop the next generation of swimmers?

"I don’t know. I’ve been away for so long now and I’ve seen how other systems work that I think it would be difficult for me to come back to Ireland because I feel I would be met with a lot of roadblocks.

"In Ireland we have a certain system that we want to follow. I don’t think we’re quite where we need to be in terms of progressing all of our sports. I think we need to be a lot more… I don’t want to say ‘hands on’ but basically ‘straight through the front door’.

"There’s too many people trying not to step on toes, but we need to be stepping on as many toes as we possibly can and forcing our way to the top. We are a small country, we don’t have a lot of money so that means we need to do everything that we possibly can in order to progress. If I was to get involved, I might be a bit headstrong and I’m not sure that would go down so well.

"But I would like to stay involved in sport in some shape or form, even if it’s coaching. But who knows? I’ll leave that window open."

The Games, although somewhat marred by controversy, will be looked back on fondly, and the silver medals won by Gary and Paul O'Donovan as well as Annalise Murphy will be a testament to the success of the Irish delegation.

Despite the wins, for Doyle there will always be one or two regrets.

"I wish I wasn’t as excited as I was. I wish I was a little bit more relaxed and a little more confident. Not that I wasn’t confident going in, but it’s the Olympic Games. As much as I had thought I had prepared, you can’t really be prepared for the Olympics.

"I had a bit of a tough year at the start, and there were some things I wish I could have done at that point in time during my race but I didn’t. I jumped the gun and got excited. As a result, I didn’t make hit the expectations that I had set out for myself that I thought were realistic.

"I know in the future, and in time to come, I’ll be proud of myself for everything that I did leading up to the Olympic Games, and for my attitude at the Games.

"To represent the country as a clean athlete and to be proud for what I have done - I want to be proud that I might have inspired some younger athletes to try and be at the next Olympic Games in swimming, or even the one after. To go and try win that medal or do what they can do to get there."