Russia doping crisis: The horrible day a cheating Russian athlete had me doubting my ability

British middle distance runner Hannah England recalls losing out to soon-to-be-banned Anna Alminova and ‘sobbing my eyes out’  

Hannah England
Wednesday 11 November 2015 00:23
Hannah England shows her despair after being knocked out in the heats at the 2009 European Indoor Championships
Hannah England shows her despair after being knocked out in the heats at the 2009 European Indoor Championships

I remember the first time I put on a Great Britain vest in competition. It’s one of those immensely proud moments, one that came for me at the European Indoor Championships in Turin in 2009.

It’s not a moment of my career where I covered myself in glory as I bombed out of the heats and my Dad had to persuade me to come to the stadium to watch the final.

Russia’s Anna Alminova won that final with such ease and I remember thinking “she’s only two years older than me” but I felt I had no hope of getting to that level. “I can’t fathom how she can be that good,” I said to my Dad before promptly sobbing my eyes out on his shoulder.

Russia’s Anna Alminova wins the 1500m in Turin in 2009 (Getty)

It never got so bad that I thought about walking away from athletics, but it was the first time that I questioned whether I could truly deliver on the world stage and whether I could aspire to be at that level.

Instead, I initially shifted my goals to being the best I could be in Britain, to beat the girls I knew and to target personal bests on the track.

Needless to say, Alminova failed a test the following year and was banned. She was one of the athletes mentioned in Monday’s World Anti-Doping Agency independent commission report into Russian doping.

As the report broke and the fall-out began, I was standing outdoors with a group of year 12 athletes, three of whom had never run before.

The purity of the moment somehow stripped back for me how the sport should be. The weather was terrible – it was wet and windy – but it was refreshing to see these 16 and 17-year-olds enjoy it, totally unaware of the ills of the sport, and to see them improve just in that short space of time.

Needless to say, the return home was like being back with a bang; what had gone on was finally laid bare in damning and very extensive detail. There in writing was the full extent of what Russia’s coaches, athletes and their whole system had been doing.

It’s funny as I’ve been a professional athlete for seven or eight years now and throughout that time there’s always been this negative impression towards their athletes.

I remember if a Russian won or did something spectacular there would be the odd raised eyebrows or people would say “it must be the drugs”. Naively perhaps, I chose not to be so negative. For one, being that negative the whole time isn’t healthy as an athlete.

But I was wrong and the commission’s report made abundantly clear the extent of the cheating within Russian athletics.

WADA reports on doping

While this report is immensely disappointing, actually devastating, to read it’s also genuinely refreshing. To date, all the responses have been far too wishy washy but here in black and white it says what the problem is and what needs to be done to resolve it. Finally there’s a way to move forward.

I hope it’s not another false dawn. I remember ahead of the World Championships in Daegu in 2011 they announced that every athlete would be blood tested. OK, they made an error in announcing it beforehand but it sent the message that cheats will get caught.

That was the first time in an age that there wasn’t a sub-four-minute time run for the 1500m, and it was a championship which resulted in me coming away with a silver medal.

Right then, it felt like the start of something different, like the sport was getting clean, only for that to be rubbished by London 2012.

I simply want to end my career knowing that I was on the start line of a major championships with the same legitimate chance as my rivals

&#13; <p>Hannah England</p>&#13;

The Olympics are a strange thing. They are the absolute pinnacle of the sport and, as such, people push themselves even harder to get there even if that means foul play. We’ve seen now how big the step back was from 2011 and 2012.

The authorities have to be hard, it’s the only way. If not the sport will implode. Parents will not want their kids to get involved in the sport, fans in Britain won’t pay for tickets to see the Diamond League events, sponsors will stay away from individual athletes and more broadly events and the television stations aren’t going to continue to broadcast something viewers don’t believe in.

Sebastian Coe is an inspirational figure as an athlete and in terms of what he did in London 2012 but the organisation he presides over has a lot of work to do.

As for me as an athlete, I’ll carry on, much longer if I need to. I don’t want there to be cheats any more, I want that level playing field.

Whatever I go on to achieve for the rest of my career, I simply want to end my career knowing that I was on the start line of a major championships with the same legitimate chance as my rivals. Is that too much to ask?

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