27 July 2012

David Millar: Making Amends

Play True talks candidly with Olympic cyclist and WADA Athlete Committee member David Millar.

Play True: There has been a lot of coverage over the last six months regarding the BOA by-law and the implications it has for you: has it been a distraction or have you managed to continue training and competing as usual?

David Millar: It has been a bit of an abstract situation for me. It isn’t a battle I chose to fight but it is one for which, for better or worse, I have become a very public poster boy. It hasn’t affected my training or competing, in fact (perhaps confusingly) I was road captain for the GB team that took Mark Cavendish  to his World Championship victory last year.

PT: It is well known that you have served a sanction for doping, and since then adopted a strong anti-doping  stance that includes being a representative on the WADA Athlete Committee. You must genuinely feel that all athletes deserve a second chance: do you  have any problems reconciling your previous actions with competing again?

DM: For obvious reasons I feel very strongly in a person’s  right to a second chance, but also because I believe that we can learn from the mistakes people make. Perfection and idealism are wonderful things for us to aspire to, especially in the sporting world, but often we don’t achieve them and sometimes we fail criminally.

I have tried to reconcile the criminal failure I had by bettering and offering myself as an example and educator to the sporting world, by doing this I feel like I am repaying the debt I owe for being given a second chance. Ultimately I want to prevent any young athlete from going through what I went through. If I can do this I feel my previous actions, no matter how erroneous and regretful, served a larger purpose.

PT: Congratulations on recently becoming a father: do  you think this has given you a new perspective on what  it means to be an athlete, and how fortunate elite athletes  are to be able to compete at the top level of sport?

DM: Fatherhood has definitely changed my view of the world I live in and I think any parent that doesn’t feel this has missed out on one of the basic joys of having a child. Oddly it hasn’t altered my view on elite athletes - that is something that I came to recognize and appreciate during my two-year ban. Being ostracized from the world I had grown up in and no longer treated as a golden child (which almost all elite athletes are although they’re likely blind to it) I was finally able to recognize how incredibly lucky I was.

I carry this with me to this very day and try to make it clear to my peers that this is a magic time that mustn’t be taken for granted. Elite athletes often talk about sacrifices, I did when I was younger, but it’s important for elite athletes to accept these ‘sacrifices’ are actually choices in order to truly enjoy and appreciate what they have.

PT: How well can you recall the very first time you took a performance enhancing substance, and how difficult a decision was it for you bearing in mind the culture in cycling at the time?

DM: I can remember it vividly. It was anti-climatic and not quite the flicking of a switch that people would imagine. I had been fighting becoming a doper for years; when I did join them I felt very little except resignation and sadness that I’d become what I’d always detested most.

PT: You clearly were never comfortable taking doping substances: do you recognize yourself from those days and would it be right to say you are a happier person since turning your back on drugs?

DM: I hated being a doper. I had to lie all the time and pretend to be somebody that I knew I wasn’t. This ate away at me and slowly changed me for the worse. I became unrecognizable to the people that knew me best in the world. It breaks my heart now to think the pain I put my family through; they knew there was something wrong but I would never tell them what.

It also makes me terribly sad to think of how unhappy and lonely I was; I would never want to live that time again. I am a happier and better person now. Drugs almost killed me; not the physical effects of them but the psychological damage that using them had on me.

PT: You have been quoted before as saying that you are not sure whether you wanted to compete at London 2012. Is this correct, and if so why did you have doubts about taking part?

DM: It’s true that I’m not sure about London 2012. I have spent the last eight years rebuilding my life, I want my story to carry a positive message and I fear  going to the Olympics will see me, and more importantly my family and friends, having to endure negative opinion and see me becoming even more of a polemic figure. I don’t know if I want to go through this.

PT: There have been a number of high profile athletes and  sports administrators claiming in the media that you and  Dwain Chambers should not have the chance to compete  in London: how would you answer these concerns?

DM: I would answer them by asking them how much they know about my story. How those same people would feel if their son or daughter were to find themselves being manipulated into taking drugs to increase their performance and in the process almost destroy themselves out of guilt. It is easy to talk about ethics;  it is harder to use empathy.

PT: You have been a very supportive member of WADA’s Athlete Committee and the insights you have shared have great value: how much of an impact do you think your anti-doping stance has had on other sportsmen and women?

DM: I hope it has had a significant impact. This is  the reason I take great pride in my position on the WADA Athlete Committee; it gives me a voice that  can actually contribute towards change. It is all very well talking publicly, doing interviews, writing a book, even having my own team with its very pro-active  anti-doping stance, but in the end the biggest vehicle for change is WADA.

PT: Have you ever been approached by another athlete seeking advice on how to rebuild their careers after a spell of doping and how to stay a clean competitor?

DM: I have, by more than one. We have a rider on our team now who is an ex-doper, Thomas Dekker, a young man who found himself in a similar situation to me and made the same mistakes. He is now rebuilding his life and we are going to help him do it. We believe that there is no stronger way of influencing the younger members of the team not to dope than a repentant and vocal ex-doper.

It is a constant and real reminder to them of the harsh realities that exist. We may be the ‘Clean Team’ but we live in the real world, and we want the next generation to be prepared for that.

PT: Do you think it is time for athletes to take a more active role in the fight against doping in sport? If so, how do you think they could do this?

DM: I think all athletes should take an active role in the fight against doping. This can be anything from saying proudly ‘I am clean’, to correctly and uncomplainingly filling in your ADAMS whereabouts. There is also a responsibility to understand both sides of the coin, to recognize those athletes that are susceptible to doping, and to weed out the members of the entourage who are likely to influence athletes to dope.

Elite athletes are benefiting now from the incredible hard work of hundreds if not thousands of people to create an environment in which they can practise their chosen sport fairly against one another. They should not  take this for granted; it is not a one-way street. They must try and give something back, however small it is.

(At the time of writing this piece, a decision had not been taken on whether David was going to compete  at London 2012).