Neil Featherby: My take on Salazar and drugs in sport

Mo Farah, right, and Galen Rupp with disgraced coach Alberto Salazar Picture: PA

Mo Farah, right, and Galen Rupp with disgraced coach Alberto Salazar Picture: PA - Credit: PA

I have had to give this one a lot of thought, but after a matter of a fact conversation with Mark Armstrong about the ban given to Alberto Salazar this week, he suggested it would make for a good feature.

Neil Featherby out running with his beloved Oslo - who sadly passed away this week Picture: Mark Hew

Neil Featherby out running with his beloved Oslo - who sadly passed away this week Picture: Mark Hewlett - Credit: Archant

I do not condone the taking of drugs one bit. I detest the thought of anyone taking substances, be it sport or otherwise. The only way to get anywhere near to stopping it is to hand out life bans for anyone found guilty.

However, Mark also asked me if I have witnessed drug taking in sport and if I had, would I also mention it.

The answer was sadly, yes. While I genuinely believe it is only a minority who do, I am not naive enough to think every top athlete is whiter than white, however much we want them to be. That has been proved too many times with Russia once again facing strong accusations It is awful and just knocks all genuine lovers of sport backwards each time something like this happens.

I remember returning from a run on the day Ben Johnson was exposed back in 1988, and there was Paul Evans on the phone asking me if I had heard the news. I hadn't, but when he told me what had happened, at the time I was gutted. Why? Because even though there had always been rumours, we just don't want them to be true.

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Finding out that Salazar, who was not only an awesome athlete (on the track, cross country and as a marathon runner), as well as being a very knowledgeable coach, has also been cheating to such extent, absolutely saddens me. Worse still by the manipulation of some of his athletes. You just don't want to hear it never mind believe it.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, in his prime, he was seen to almost run himself into the ground such was his determination to win. He won the New York marathon three times, although one of my favourite races of all time was the awesome finish he had with fellow American athlete Dick Beardsley, when winning in the Boston Marathon of 1982, a race which has since been given the title of 'Duel in The Sun'.

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Nevertheless, was he himself on drugs when competing at such a high standard? Was he even drug tested during that time or after the races? I certainly don't know the answer, but as he wasn't banned you have to assume that he wasn't or unless of course they now back-track the results.

It's not just athletes either. The world of professional cycling has had plenty of fingers pointed at it for years and even more recently against riders from what was Team Sky. Needless to say, still yet to be proven. Then of course the banning of Lance Armstrong which turned the cycling world upside down. It's horrible, because it just has a huge effect on their given sport and can give a false impression particularly to youngsters who want to emulate their heroes.

When I worked for Bupa in their fitness assessment unit in the early 1990s, one very high profile athlete told me that he had been invited to a big athletics meet on the continent where it was assumed he was on drugs and he was told that he didn't need to worry about getting caught as a sample would be provided for him. He was adamant that he wasn't on drugs and I truly believe he wasn't.

Another also told me that he was advised what positions not to finish in as they would be the placings that would be getting tested. Worse still, another sportsmen (not a runner) turned up with a large box which in nutshell was full of everything. "Can I keep it here, as I am now going overseas to compete and I can't afford to get caught," he said to me.

I don't have a clue why he wanted to leave them with us, but what he did say, which really made me take a step backwards, was that I was welcome to help myself to any of the contents. When I told him I didn't take drugs, he laughed his head off and said: "Yes you do, all you runners take drugs." It didn't matter what I said, he had made his mind up that we did.

I absolutely love sport and needless to say athletics, but it is such a sad time when such icons have been proven to have broken the law when it comes to taking banned substances. At the same time it also casts aspersions against others who really don't deserve to have fingers pointed at them.

The likes of Mo Farah and others who have all trained under Salazar will always now have some people saying "no smoke without fire", which in my opinion is unfair, but that is life, albeit it's a crying shame.

Someone once said to me in my village pub that all athletes of my generation were on drugs and that the only reason there were so many really good British marathon runners back in the day was because everyone was on the gear. To say my blood boiled to the point where I was so very close to seeing the red mist before my eyes is an understatement. However, when someone does gets caught, there will always be those out there who like to point fingers at others too.

Grassroots athletics is where it all begins and it is so important for youngsters to realise that they can go on to emulate their heroes just through hard work, total dedication and of course good nutrition as proved by so many of our UK athletes during the last few years.

For those who know me well, will know that 2019 has been a pretty tough year to say the least. However, and talking about grassroots sport, there is nothing better than just the freedom of running so as to help keep a healthy mind and of course healthy body. All you need is fresh air and open space…

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