Graeme Steel: Don't let cheats spoil moment for our athletes

Sonny Bill Williams and Rafael Nadal in the Olympic village in a photo posted to the Twitter account of @sonnybwilliams.
Sonny Bill Williams and Rafael Nadal in the Olympic village in a photo posted to the Twitter account of @sonnybwilliams.

The Olympic Games are an extraordinary and uplifting experience for the vast majority of competitors and for the people who are inspired by their feats. However, over recent months issues have arisen which have given cause for some media to conclude that they can no longer trust what they see at the Games, or the people that are tasked with running them.

Not least of these have been the revelations of state-sponsored doping in Russia and the almost impossible task the International Olympic Committee gave to international federations requiring them to manufacture a response at short notice. Cynicism is certainly a fair reaction but there remain very good reasons why we should still watch and take pleasure and pride in the achievements of our athletes.

Amongst the most memorable moments of any New Zealand parent's life are surely the times they spend on the side of a sporting arena watching their children play for the pure exhilaration of it.

The environment is not perfect but it is predominantly one where our youngsters learn to win and lose, respect others and, importantly, to try their hardest. These formative experiences first inspire our future Olympians. It is, in essence, the same today as it was for great Olympians like Yvette Williams and Peter Snell.

What has changed markedly is the environment into which the best of them now emerge. Commercialisation of sport and challenges to its integrity create many pitfalls for naive young athletes and navigating a successful sporting career is not easy.

Drug Free Sport New Zealand helps them to meet those challenges in the area of doping but the difficult consequence is a highly demanding regime which, for some of them, means providing daily whereabouts and responding to drug test requirements at no notice, and sometimes at 6am or 10pm wherever they may be.

This regime does not necessarily make Drug Free Sport NZ the favourite organisation of some athletes but it does mean we are putting them through a state of the art programme designed to cull any cheats. It is strides ahead of what we were doing even five years ago. Fortunately, our programme has the full support of sporting organisations and the athletes understand its importance and why they need to comply.

Kiwi athletes are, generally speaking, the products of sound, nurturing environments and comprehensive high performance programmes which place ethics at their core. We can never provide an absolute guarantee but the New Zealand public has every reason to be confident our Olympians are clean. We are not alone in providing such environments.

There will be athletes at the Games who have doped and sadly some of our Kiwi athletes may lose to them. But the cheats should not sleep too soundly as improved tests in the future may yet catch today's cheats. In spite of the doping many of our Olympians will be successful.

The majority of athletes are committed to competing in the right way and seek only to fulfil their dreams to participate in and succeed at the Games. Yes, sport has its issues including doping, excessive commercialisation and poor leadership. But, at its core, the Olympic spirit remains for most athletes who, in the heat of competition, focus simply on doing what they've spent years training to do.

Sport is a wonderful source of pleasure, health, and community spirit. Arising from that, and at its apex, it demonstrates the greatest examples of human capacity (and not just athletically) in an environment which can be an enormous force for good. Don't let the cheats succeed in making us cynical in our views of what we hope will be another memorable event in Rio which should help inspire the next batch of young athletes.

Let's revel in the endeavour and achievements of the many clean athletes and support them to the maximum. Above all else, let's do everything we can to protect the integrity and beauty of sport for the next generation.

Graeme Steel is chief executive of Drug Free Sport NZ He was a competitive international athlete for 13 years, and has operated New Zealand's anti-doping programme for more than 20 years, working in the doping control stations at Olympic and Paralympic games.

- NZ Herald

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