A Clean Slate | Geneticist Yannis Pitsiladis On How a Sub-Two Marathon Could Fast-Track the War Against Doping in Sport
“Drug usage in sport is more pervasive than the public thought. We in the field knew.”
On the morning of 6th May at 5.45am Nike sent Lelisa Desisa, Zersenay Tadese, and Eliud Kipchoge out to run a 26.2 mile race designed specifically to produce the first ever sub two-hour marathon as part of their ‘Breaking2’ project.
On a Formula One track in Monza, Italy, 32-year-old Kenyan specialist Kipchoge came within 26 seconds of doing exactly that, while his fellow runners came up even shorter. This was the first official attempt to try and run a sub-two marathon, but it certainly won't be the last.
So why is it such a big fuss? Is it all just a marketing stunt?
According to Yannis Pitsiladis, a leading geneticist heavily involved in sub-two marathon science, the project is essential for raising awareness of the potential of sports science and ultimately proving that you don’t need to dope to be the best.
“Drug usage in sport is more pervasive than the public thought. We in the field knew."
Pitsiladis is an expert in doping prevention and founder of the Sub2 group; a project separate from Nike's 'Breaking2' but sharing the ultimate goal of a sub two-hour marathon.
Pitsiladis' Sub2 group state that an athlete completing a sub two hour marathon is "no longer a matter of if but rather when".
We caught up with the scientist, who is based at the University of Brighton, at the Edinburgh International Science Festival. He believes that in an era where drug use is much “more pervasive than the public thought" the sub-two is imperative for proving the legitimacy of scientific-based training.
“A large number of individuals would argue that [the sub two] is such an anomaly that it has to be drug induced," he told us. “The sub two project was devised because in the last five years most of my work has been focused on dealing with the drugs in sport problem. Basically, drug usage in sport is more pervasive than the public thought. We in the field knew.
“So for me, I’ve been trying to get organisations like the World Anti-Doping Agency and the IOC to think of alternatives to drugs; to give athletes access to the technology that guys have in laboratories that really do work. If we don’t do that and provide that alternative to doping we’re going to lose that fight against drugs. It’s easier to go down the drug route.
“What we want to do is take a sport which recently has evidence of a serious doping problem – marathon running is clearly one of those – and see if we can come up with a scientific way to beat those guys and do it cleanly and sell on the technology."
Pitsiladis was open in admitting that sports science does not currently have a stellar reputation, referring to it openly as “the Mickey Mouse of the field of medicine", and criticising many in the field for producing work not based on evidence and furthering this reputation.
He spoke passionately and in a matter-of-fact tone about how his work was based on evidence and could produce results able to rival that of performance enhancing drugs.
The scientist is a man of firm opinions. He says that: “champions are built from those with innate ability" and argues that in order to be the best in the world “you need to have chosen the right parents" – you cannot be trained or nurtured to reach the top.
He believes that leading authorities need to accept this and changes need to be made in the field of sports science if the field is to progress and projects like his are going to be funded.
Pitsiladis said: “The IOC (International Olympic Committee) think that sport is about going to university, doing some training and making it to the top. That was what it was when Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile. Today sport is business.
“Top athletes go to famous clinics around the world where it’s considered they should go, and what they’re getting in return is actually quackery. But that’s the best we have at the moment because sports medicine, which is the Mickey Mouse of the field of medicine, is not evidence based. As much as I hate to admit that. Which means that they also are required to up their game. When those fields become more evidence based they’ll get more athletes.
“Whatever the question is in sports science or sports medicine, you want to tackle that question in a multi-disciplinary way; using sociologists, sports psychologists, bio-mechanists, engineers. Bring them all together and finance them well.
“The most expensive athletes, the ones who get paid more in a week than we get paid in a year don’t care about sports science. What does that tell us? They don’t think we have any impact."
“There’s a realisation that the field exists but if you go to Jamaica and Kenya and Ethiopia where I go, they really don’t care. They don’t care about sports scientists. Most football teams in the UK also don’t care. They take on sports science for the FA grants. The most expensive athletes, the ones who get paid more in a week than we get paid in a year don’t care about us. What does that tell us? They don’t think we have any impact."
And a sub-two marathon would change that by providing proof of the impact?
Pitsiladis believes so. “I’m very excited about the project and the reason is that it’s got some really strong legacy messages."
He believes that once it can be proven that the quickest way to reach world class standard is through scientific training and evidence, doping can be steadily eliminated. As long as tests improve in order to catch and punish the remaining offenders.
“We need to come up with better anti-doping tests that really work, because currently they do not work."
“Athletes don’t care about us," he said. “They want the quickest way to get to the top. That’s drugs. We need a quicker way to get there. And we need protection of the clean athlete. We need to come up with better anti-doping tests that really work, because currently they do not work.
“Currently the sole funding I have in my laboratory today is for anti-doping testing, using technology to identify the next generation of anti-doping tests. I’m probably one of the labs that gets the most funding in this area and that funding only allows me to have one student working for me a year. With that level of funding what are we going to be able to?
“We need thinking outside of the box. We advocate it. Let’s provide the sports scientists, the discipline as a whole across the UK with the resources they require. Provide them with access to research access funding. Support this kind of research so we can give real alternatives to doping to athletes and help promote physical activity."
When you next see an attempt to break the sub-two marathon then, you’ll know that this is no novelty. Nike’s ‘Breaking2’ project may be a marketing stunt, but it’s a marketing stunt that could shape the future of doping in athletics and transform the progression of modern sport.