August 12, 2014
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Carrying the clean sport message to the athletes of tomorrow

By Kirsty Coventry

Kirsty Coventry is a 30-year-old professional swimmer from Harare, Zimbabwe. She is a two-time Olympic champion and Commonwealth champion in the Backstroke and Individual Medley. A former Zimbabwean Sportswoman of the Year, and widely considered a national treasure back home, Kirsty is one of the most decorated Swimmers of all time. She is currently training in North Carolina, USA with the aim of making it to her fifth Olympics in Rio, two years from now. An active anti-doping ambassador and World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Athlete Committee member, Kirsty will be in Nanjing, China for the 2014 Youth Olympic Games from 16 – 28 August where she will promote WADA’s Athlete Outreach program. 

As someone who has always held strong views on anti-doping in sport, the opportunity to join WADA’s Athlete Committee in 2013 was something I wanted to grasp with both hands. I have always believed that as a professional athlete it is my responsibility to speak up on the matters that directly impact sport, and speaking up on the issue of doping is no different.

Growing up as an aspiring athlete in Zimbabwe, my parents taught me the basic moral values of knowing what was right and what was wrong. I learnt what it would take for an athlete to succeed and, as in all aspects of life, it was clear that there would be no short cuts; hard work is what it would take to do well. That is a view I maintain to this day. The reason I compete is to see how far I can push myself. This means that when I finish a race, regardless of where I place, I finished because of my hard work not because of a ‘substance’.

As a member of WADA’s Athlete Committee, I believe it is important for as many athletes as possible to speak up in favor of clean sport. I am fortunate that with my success in swimming has come a platform from which to air my views on issues facing sport. There was no moment more important than at the World Conference on Doping in Sport in Johannesburg last November when I had the opportunity to offer my intervention in front of the entire anti-doping community – not only my fellow athletes but scientists, medics, legislators, international federations and governments, too. What I said then is what I believe now, as I prepare to carry the clean sport message to the young, tomorrow’s athletes, at the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing.

Firmer sanctions to deter athletes from even contemplating cheating. Accountability on the Athlete Entourage. Both these aspects in particular will make anti-doping stronger once the revised rulebook – the 2015 World Anti-Doping Code – is introduced at the start of next year. I remember as a young athlete the trust I placed on my entourage – my parents, coaches and doctors. Thankfully, they never abused that trust, but I have heard unfortunate stories of fellow sportsmen and women whose entourage have abused their positions and encouraged their athletes to dope. It is these two points – sanctions and the entourage – that, above all others, need to be told to young athletes.

Today we can access information in an instant and we can access anything we want. You can feed yourself the information you want to know – not necessarily what you need to know. Peer pressure is a big problem and everyone is being pressured into new products by magazine covers and advertising promotions all skillfully touched up with Photoshop and other software. It’s easier to say ‘well, everyone else is doing it…’. This does not make it right and many people are not doing it, this is why these sanctions are here – to keep our sport clean and therefore fair for the real athletes.

In China later this week, I will have the opportunity to interact on a one-on-one basis with these young athletes. There will be hundreds of teenage sportsmen and women competing in no fewer than 28 sports that I will meet and pass on information to, relating to anti-doping. Young athletes need to know what their rights and responsibilities are when it comes to anti-doping. Anti-doping can be a complicated topic to understand, but as an athlete that has competed in elite sport for many years, I feel it is my responsibility to share my experiences and help the next generation choose the right path. One thing is key – doping control is necessary to deter cheats, and it is important young athletes understand that point. As a young athlete, you may very well be pressured into taking something illegal. You need to know that if you get caught you might be able to blame someone else, but because you are always the final decision maker, you will still be held responsible. Be strong, know what is right and wrong.

It is not just deterrence, however, that is important. Far from it. Prevention is crucial to the long-term success of anti-doping programs, and WADA does a huge amount in that regard. Values-based education programs are now used by sports federations and anti-doping organizations right around the world. These tools are now central to every anti-doping program, and serve as a reminder for athletes to understand why doping is the wrong choice to take, against the spirit of sport and, above all, dangerous.

In Nanjing at WADA’s Outreach booth, athletes will have a chance to participate in a youth version of the Play True Quiz, which aims to inform athletes of anti-doping issues in a fun and engaging way. The quiz has been successful in WADA’s major multi-sport event program across the world and will be showcased in over 30 languages.

Above all, I look forward to playing my part in ensuring the athletes in Nanjing – who are, let us not forget, the athletes of tomorrow – do not make the same mistakes as some athletes do today. Athlete interaction has proven a highly effective way of getting the message across to the future generations of elite sport. By representing the majority of athletes - the clean sport movement - in Nanjing, I will be contributing to keeping sport clean for future generations of athletes; helping getting this message to our youth so they are encouraged to say no to cheats.