Adharanand Finn hosts the popular podcast The Way of the Runner, named after one of his books, where he talks about the joy and experience of running at all different levels. Or so I’m told.
Podcasts have never been my thing, especially not when running, and most of the other time too. This week, though, Finn replayed a curiously familiar clip of his podcast from January of last year, when his guest was New Zealand distance runner Zane Robertson, and it made for essential listening.
Close followers of this sport may know his story already, Robertson famously moving from Hamilton in 2007 at age 17, along with his twin brother Jake, in part to escape bullying and a broken family, to live and train in Kenya with the hope of mixing it among the best distance runners in the world.
To some extent they succeeded, Zane breaking six New Zealand records, including the half and full marathon, also winning bronze at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, finishing just behind two Kenyan runners, while Jake later improved his brother’s New Zealand 10,000m record, running 27:30.90 in 2018, a mark which still stands.
Part of their mantra was if you can’t beat the Kenyans then join them, and they’ve been the subject of countless running features over the years, most of which pointed out how training in Kenya has made all the difference. Train hard, win easy and all that.
Given all that experience, living in that championed high-altitude town of Iten, it’s little wonder Finn asked Robertson about the increasingly prevalent Kenya “doping question”, to which Robertson coldly replied: “No way, never ... I’m not going to even answer that for the sake of the sport.”
On Wednesday, news broke that Robertson had been given an eight-year ban after testing positive for erythropoietin (EPO) and then providing false documentation in his defence. He’s no longer contesting it, initially trying to bluff his way out before eventually coming clean.
The positive test came at the Great Manchester Run in May of last year, so just four months after he sat in with Finn on his podcast, that race won by his brother, with Zane back in 11th. Earlier this year he announced his retirement.
After being informed of his positive result, Robertson accepted EPO was in his body, but claimed he had visited a medical facility in Kenya for a Covid vaccination, only to be given EPO instead. When he submitted documentation to support this claim, it was found to have been falsified, hence the double term of the suspension.
According to the full decision published by the New Zealand Sports Tribunal, Robertson supported his evidence with sworn affidavits from two Kenyan doctors, hospital notes, a hospital report and a witness statement from a Kenyan detective corroborating his claims. They were all dismissed as rubbish.
It’s clearly taking a sad and heavy toll, Robertson admitted feeling suicidal after his positive result emerged
A vice-president of the “medical facility Mr Robertson claimed to have attended” provided a statement saying that “Mr Robertson was not administered EPO at the facility, that he had not attended the facility on the alleged date, that of the two doctors he claimed had treated him, one was a laboratory technician and the other was not employed at the facility, that the medical notes were not generated at the facility and the patient number on the notes was not Mr Robertson’s”. Only in light of this evidence, collected and filed by Drug Free Sport New Zealand (DFSNZ) did he abandon his fictitious defence.
Then on Thursday, Robertson popped up on another podcast, this time openly emotional, a guest on an episode of New Zealand broadcaster Dom Harvey’s Runners Only!
He said his EPO use was a “one-off” and the result of many factors, including depression and a recently messy divorce. Without naming or placing, he said: “It’s been building on me for a few years, frustration and anger at the sport itself, and at any elite sport. I just believe the top is ... it’s not a level playing field.”
It’s clearly taking a sad and heavy toll too, Robertson admitted feeling suicidal after his positive result emerged. He’s not alone, however, Athletics New Zealand chief executive Pete Pfitzinger saying: “We take athlete welfare very seriously, so we understand the anxiety and stress that Zane will be experiencing ... [and] offered and have provided extensive wellbeing support alongside.”
Still, Robertson didn’t attempt to deny he caused his own undoing, including his ridiculous “EPO in the Covid vaccine” ruse.
“I want to take full blame for that as well, that was my idea. To me, [a four-year ban was] the same as eight, it’s the end of my career, there’s no coming back from this so I was just trying to save my ass.”
That’s where his story ends, at least for now. His case is similar to that of Martin Fagan, the Irish distance runner who tested positive for EPO in January 2012, six months out from the London Olympics, claiming that too was a once-off – although he never tried to cover it up, like Robertson.
[ Sonia O’Sullivan: Building back trust in Kenyan distance running will be a long journey ]
Either way there’s no point in coming clean if you don’t come clean all the way. Elite sport has a history of this, and certainly not just athletics. Cycling has always been leading the chase in this pursuit, including the “vanishing twin” (Tyler Hamilton), the “pigeon pie” (Adri van der Poel), the “poppy seed muffin” (Alexi Grewal), and the “too much whiskey” (Floyd Landis), all of which they claimed resulted in a positive doping sample.
Turned out no, they were simply doping.
Setting the trend here was US sprinter Dennis Mitchell, who back in 1998 tested positive for testosterone, his defence being he drank five bottles of beer and had sex with his wife at least four times. That excuse was accepted by US Track and Field, though the IAAF, now World Athletics, banned him for two years.
It’s a sadly familiar case too, how all that joy and experience of running can be so completely lost in the race to get to the top. Robertson doesn’t necessarily need to go on another podcast, and maybe he has said all he wants to already, but there’s also that familiar sense he’s still not telling the truth of it all. Especially around the increasingly prevalent Kenya “doping question”.