“It was my blood, it was my life, it was my breath”: The rise of Rwanda’s first female football coach

By Ciaran O’Mahony

Grace Nyinawumuntu lost her parents at just 11 years of age.  

It was 1994 and they were among 800,000 people slaughtered when Rwanda’s ethnic Hutus attempted to wipe out the Tutsi minority.

She spent those vicious “100 days of slaughter” in hiding, along with her younger brother and sister.

They knew what would happen if they were found. No men, women or children were spared, until the extremist Government was overthrown by the Rwandan Patriotic Front.

But even when the killings stopped, life was not easy.

“I grew up in the orphanage centre because I lost my parents during the genocide,” Nyinawumunutu says.

“We lost my brother during that time.”

She prefers not to dwell too much on the pain of the past, but she will never forget.

“It was not easy to survive.”

“But I tried my best just to be who I am today.”

For most of her teenage years, Nyinawumuntu grieved in isolation. Distancing herself from the outside world seemed like the safest means of coping with grave trauma and loss.

“Every time, I needed to stay alone. To be alone.”  

She may never have dug herself out of this emotional abyss if it wasn’t for her greatest passion – sport.

“Sport gave me happiness,” Nyinawumuntu says.

“After that period of genocide, if there is no sport, I cannot be alive at that time.”

Grace Nyinawumuntu. Photo: Bogarts via Getty Images.

Nyinawumuntu was drawn to football, in particular, from a young age. There was something about it that captivated her, even though her parents discouraged her from playing.

“I was very interested in playing football, something [which] of course my mother never approved, even support[ed].”

“It was forbidden to see a girl or a woman who played.”

“Football was regarded as a boy’s game in our society and a girl was never supported to play.”

At the time, Rwandans believed it was inappropriate for girls to play football, because they were uncomfortable with the idea of them wearing shorts and lifting their legs to kick the ball.

Throughout her childhood, Nyinawumuntu was forbidden from kicking a single ball. Even at school.

She had to settle for more ‘appropriate’ sports such as handball and volleyball. They weren’t football, but they were a welcome distraction from her private sadness.  

“I had to participate in the other sports like handball or like volleyball. Because in my life, I didn’t survive without doing sport.”

“It was my blood, it was my life, it was my breath.”

Women’s football finally arrives in Rwanda

One year after Nyinawumuntu finished school, she finally got her chance to play the sport she craved.  

An ambitious entrepreneur named Felicite Rwemarika had just established Rwanda’s first football program for girls and women.

Rwemarika created the Association of Kigali Women in Sports (AKWOS) in 2003, to provide an outlet for women to work through their trauma and heal together.

“With the culture [in Rwanda], they could not believe that women can play sports,” says Rwemarika, who is now a member of the International Olympic Committee and President of the Rwanda Women and Sports Commission.  

“They would say ‘this woman is crazy, maybe she’s traumatised because of genocide.’”

“I said ‘no, sport is for everyone. Everyone can play sports, everyone can join sports for a creation. For unity, for talking [about] our issues.’”

A group of girls take to the field in Rwanda. Photo: AKWOS Facebook page

Word spread across the country of this group of women playing football. When the news reached Nyinawumuntu, she set off without hesitatation, to chase her dream.

“It was a time I finally managed to found [sic] a way I can play.”  

“We had only one team [at the time] created by Rwemarika Felicite,” says Nyinawumuntu. “I tried to attend her first team, where I have been selected on my first time to be in the national women’s team.”

Finally getting the chance to play, and cultivate her talent as a Centre-Back, Nyinawumuntu began healing from old wounds.

“Sport helped me so much because I have [been] in the bad situation of losing my parents. [The] bad situation of losing my brother.”

“But after joining the team of Felicite, [that] is the time I started to [be] having happiness from the team.”

UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for the Social and Human Sciences, Gabriela Ramos, has seen first-hand, the positive effect sport can have on women like Nyinawumuntu.

Ramos says sport provides an escape that helps women overcome hardship and increase their sense of self-worth.

Early positive experiences with sport, especially in school and community settings, are critical to address three intersecting global crises that girls face disproportionally: physical inactivity, mental health conditions and inequality,” she says.

“Girls’ lack of self-confidence and negative stereotypes hinder their perspective to succeed in life.”

“Programmes delivering quality Physical Education have therefore a real power to provide meaningful change to women’s lives.”

Felicite Rwemarika can attest to this, having given Nyinawumuntu and many other Rwandan women a sporting platform.

“After the genocide, women were the most vulnerable,” she says. “They were worried [and in fear] of [their] life and they are waiting just to die tomorrow.”

Playing football with other women who’d experienced similar trauma helped them to overcome this fear, according to Rwemarika.

Nyinawumuntu did just that. When she was out on the pitch, there was only one thing on her mind.

“When you go to do sport, even if you have different problem[s], you live on the pitch where you practice the sport,” she says.

“That’s why I can say that sport is a good medicine.”

Turning her passion into a career

Huge growth in Nyinawumuntu’s skills and wellbeing fuelled dreams of a career in sport.

But her friends and extended family scoffed at the idea. They told her sports would make her ugly and her legs would become beefy and masculine.

“[They were] telling me you will not get a job, you will be like a man, you can’t give birth, you can’t have a husband.”

While there were many doubters, she still had Felicite Rwemarika in her corner. Rwemarika recognised her talent and urged her to follow her heart.

“After she qualified to go to university, she wanted to do sports and people said how can you go to university to do sports? Sports will do nothing to you. It will not help you in any way,” says Rwemarika.

“She came back to me and I said ‘this is your passion, you need to do sports.’”

Grace Nyinawumuntu (Centre Left) with Felicite Rwemarika (Centre Right). Photo: AKWOS Facebook page

Nyinawumuntu went for it, becoming Rwanda’s first woman to complete a Bachelor’s degree in Physical Education in 2004. But just when things were finally coming together, a cruel twist of fate changed everything.

She seriously injured her knee, and it was immediately apparent that she may never play football again.  

“It was something I can’t understand in my heart,” she laments.  

She wasn’t sure where to go from there, feeling so strongly that she could “never survive without doing sport, especially football.”

The voices that told her to give up on sport grew louder after the injury, but she continued to tune them out – until she found an answer.

“I didn’t see a woman who is [a] referee,” she thought. So why not break new ground?

She decided to become the country’s first female football referee “to show the men and the women, the Rwandan society, even the girl[s], even the woman, can do the same as the men.”

Soon after, she learned of a training program for referees – one that only men attended.

While some may have been too intimidated to approach the organisers, Nyinawumuntu did so with confidence and a determination to go where no Rwandan woman had gone before.

“I don’t fear anything, I am confident of everything I do.”

“I went to the [people] responsible for that training and I request[ed] to be the one of the trainees in the referee training.”

“The first question he asked me, ‘Grace are you ready to be a referee? The first [woman] referee in Rwanda?’”

“I said, ‘I’m ready, very ready.’”

She passed the course with flying colours and was officially employed as a professional referee.

While she’d clinched employment in the sports industry, she didn’t feel like she’d made it yet. She still had a point to prove – that she was even better than the male referees.

It didn’t take her long to prove it, as she explains.

“I did better refereeing than the men because I started in the junior teams [and] women teams. But after 6 months, only 6 months, they promote[d] me in[to] the second division for men.”

“After 2 years they promoted me in the first division [for] men.”

Back to the drawing board  

Nyinawumuntu’s rapid rise came to a devastating halt, however, when her knee flared up again. It became particularly bad in 2007 and she knew it was only a matter of time before she’d be forced to stop refereeing.

Once again, she found herself fighting to keep her sporting dreams alive, so she turned to the Rwandan Football Federation for help.

She requested a transition from refereeing to coaching, which they granted.

Nyinawumuntu soon found herself attending football coaching development courses run by the German Football Association (GFA) across Rwanda.

She was among a group of 25 coaches, three of which would be selected for specialist training in Germany.

But in order to be considered for that trip to Germany, Nyinawumuntu would need to run practical demonstrations, training sessions and football matches.  

In other words, she needed a team to coach, and fast.

With Felicite Rwemarika’s help, she appealed to the mayor of Kigali city to create Rwanda’s first professional women’s football team.

He accepted their pitch with great excitement and thus, Rwanda’s first professional women’s football team, AS Kigali, was formed in 2008.

Being the head coach of an exciting new team came with weighty expectations, but Nyinawumuntu thrived in her new role, selecting AS Kigali’s first squad, and moulding it into a formidable team.

She had also unlocked another historic achievement in Rwandan women’s sport. She was the country’s first woman to become a professional football coach.

“I started to train that team in order to show the leader[s] of the federation that I am able to be a good coach even if I am a girl,” says Nyinawumuntu.  

She was acutely aware that her story could be “a powerful tool to help other women, even out[side] of the country of Rwanda.”

Her efforts were quickly noticed by Rwanda’s Technical Director of Football. After just 4 months of observing her coaching, the Rwandan FA not only named her amongst the top 3 performers in the coaching course, they told Nyinawumuntu to coach a new women’s national team.

She took this team to Germany for a series of friendlies against junior/3rd division women’s teams.

Across six matches, they won 3 and lost 3. It an extremely successful showing given how new women’s football was to Rwanda.

This campaign also demonstrated how rapidly Nyinawumuntu’s coaching skills were growing and the GFA invited her back for further managerial training a month later.

She was there for just 8 months before she was awarded a UEFA B Licence for coaching in Europe and a C-Licence for CAF.

When she returned to Rwanda, it didn’t take Nyinawumuntu long to show the fruits of all this training and experience. From 2009 to 2017, she guided AS Kigali to 9 consecutive national league titles. All of this whilst coaching the national women’s team from 2014-2017.

Her rapid and incredible success was truly inspiring for girls and women across the country, according to Felicite Rwemarika.

“They have realised that women have some potential, women can do it,” says Rwemarika.

“We are having women coaches, we’re having a national women’s coach.”

“At least there has been I can say about 80% of mindsets changed.”

Sharing her success with other women

In 2018, Nyinawumuntu spent some time away from the pitch, working as an Administrator and Financial Manager for AKWOS.

She also trained 100 women to become football coaches, to build on the increasing recognition for women’s sports in Rwanda.

She felt it was important to use her success to create opportunities for other women too.

“I try to be a good role model of other women as a support I need to give our country.”

“Sport is a great tool to help the girls and the women to become confident.”

Ultimately, she hopes to tackle negative stereotypes about women’s presence in sport. Not just in men’s minds, but in women’s.

“My wish is to help other women to be like me, or more like me.”

“I think everything I do, I just need to show the society that even women have ability to do the same as the men.”

“Many women were motivated to be like Grace.”

When a European football giant came calling  

The latest chapter in Nyinawumuntu’s coaching career began in 2019, when representatives from the mighty Paris St Germain (PSG) arrived in Rwanda to establish a new football academy.  

Nyinawumuntu was invited as one of 22 coaching finalists, to a 3-day workshop run by PSG’s Head of Coaching, Benjamin Houri.

Nyinawumuntu may have been the only female coach there, but that wasn’t the only reason she stood out. She excelled in both the theoretical and practical sessions, beating out all of the competition to become PSG Rwanda’s Technical Director.

It was another incredible triumph not only for Nyinawumuntu, but all Rwandan women, says Ms Rwemarika.

“That will be a motivation for people to see,” says Rwemarika.

“This girl was an orphan, but now she’s doing great. She has constructed her own house, she has her own car. She was the national women’s coach, now she’s the technical director [at PSG].”

Grace Nyinawumuntu (Centre) at the PSG Academy, Rwanda. Photo: PSG Academy Rwanda Instagram

Nyinawumuntu and her new staff began scouting Rwanda’s young talent in July this year, with the academy officially launching in September.

She’s pleased that PSG has established an academy in Rwanda and believes it will have a significant impact on the quality of the country’s domestic and international teams.

She beams when she considers everything she’s achieved at just 37 years of age.

So many people told Nyinawumuntu she would never have a career in sport, and yet she’s working for one of football’s biggest powerhouses.

“People who are in the area of sport. I can tell you that 60% even didn’t see my face, but they know my name.”

“Everywhere I go, they know Grace. Everywhere they need to see Grace.”

Her dogged refusal to let any obstacles prevent her from pursuing sport has taken her so far, and Nyinawumuntu says sport has given her so much in return.

“Everything I have. The house I have, the car I have, everything I have – came from sport. And also sport gave me the happiness after that genocide happened in Rwanda.”

“[It] is a good tool that can help everyone to overcome any challenge.”

Aussie Olympic samples still clean after re-testing

By Ciaran O’Mahony

One hundred blood and urine samples from Australia’s Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls have been re-tested and given the “all clear” by Sport Integrity Australia.

The samples were collected from July 2013 to September 2016 and placed in long-term storage.

A recent re-analysis by the Australian Sports Drug Testing Laboratory returned zero positive results from these randomly selected samples.

SIA’s Chief Science Officer, Dr Naomi Speer, says re-testing is essential in the fight against doping, particularly as anti-doping bodies are often playing catch up with new methods of avoiding detection.  

“It enables us to take advantage of advances in scientific knowledge and capability to detect doping which wasn’t detectable at the time a sample was collected,” she says.

Prior to Tokyo 2020, SIA and the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) told The Jaded Newsman that re-testing would be a major tool in their fight against athletes who used performance enhancing drugs during Covid-19 lockdowns.

“Some athletes take smaller amounts in the hope that they will be undetectable, which is why we utilise the Athlete Biological Passport and Retrospective Testing,” said SIA’s CEO David Sharpe.

David Sharpe, CEO Sport Integrity Australia. Photo: SIA Facebook Page.

“All athletes would be very familiar with the IOC’s re-testing program which has proved successful in back-capturing drug cheats by using new technologies to detect past infringements,” the AOC told us.  

“That program will continue to be a deterrent to anyone who might think they can use the pandemic to escape detection.”

WADA and the International Testing Agency (ITA) echoed this sentiment.

“The samples collected prior to and during the Games will be stored for up to 10 years and re-analysed at a later point in time when technology and analysis will further advance,” said ITA spokesperson Marta Nawrocka.

Over the 12 months prior to Tokyo, SIA collected 2,541 samples from Australian athletes in contention for the Olympic and Paralympic games.

Under the World Anti-doping Code, athletes can be disciplined within 10 years of the date a doping violation occurred.  

Irish speed walker Rob Heffernan was a beneficiary of this rule, retrospectively receiving Olympic bronze, four years after competing at the London Olympics.

His message to prospective dopers is simple. “Athletes need to know if they cheat, they will be caught.”

Opinion: What Happened to Football’s ‘Number 10’?

By Ciaran O’Mahony

The ‘number 10’ has been the most important position in football for years.

Some of the most gifted footballers we’ve ever seen played there. Zidane, Maradona, Ronaldinho, Platini, Eusebio – The list goes on.

But while we’ve been distracted by Ronaldo and Messi’s record-setting performances, football has changed.

Slowly, but surely, the number 10 has been disappearing.

What is a No. 10?

As the team’s primary playmaker, the ‘number 10’ operates in a free role between the midfield and the forwards. They lead the attack, using their vision, control and passing range to dictate the play.

‘Number 10’s’ are responsible for unlocking the opposition’s defence by playing their wingers and forwards through on goal and finding space to score themselves. In many ways, they are the attacking heartbeat of the team.

All of the mid-to-late twentieth century’s most successful teams were built around such a playmaker.

Zinedine Zidane. Photo: Pool MERILLON/STEVENS/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Formations

The tactical evolution of the game has played a major part in the number 10’s demise. The most common modern formations (4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1) do not accomodate the position.

The midfield in a 4-3-3 system usually consists of two advanced midfielders (left and right) and a deeper-lying defensive midfielder. The defensive midfielder occupies the central space traditionally reserved for the classic ‘number 10’.

While the 4-2-3-1 allows attacking midfielders to flourish, it doesn’t rely on one player to make the team tick. Some might say that teams with this system have three ‘number 10’s’, but that goes against the whole purpose of the position.

There is only space for one ‘true’ number 10, rather than three out and out playmakers.

Congested Midfield

It’s almost impossible to play a ‘number 10’ against modern formations because the centre of the park is so congested. Three-man midfields have taken away the space where they used to thrive. Modern managers are also reluctant to rely on one player to conduct their team’s attack.

Their logic is that if their ‘luxury player’ has an off-day or a dip in form, the entire team will suffer.

This mentality doesn’t exactly give modern players the confidence to back themselves and be creative.

Photo: Ben Radford/Corbis via Getty Images

Why is This a Problem?

Within these formations, many players that previously played behind a front two are now being used as wingers or played up front either as a striker or a ‘false nine’. Some of them have the pace to shine as wingers, while others can still operate effectively up front.

But many talented players lacking in pace or ill-suited to playing up front are being denied the opportunity to dictate attacks as playmakers.

These players are being wasted in the modern game, either on the bench or in another position.

The Case of Juan Roman Riquelme

Juan Roman Riquelme’s career is an excellent example of a good ‘number 10’ being wasted. The Argentinian was a silky playmaker with exceptional vision, intelligence and passing ability. He emerged when the speed of the game was changing rapidly and teams were beginning to experiment with their formations.

In a previous era, Riquelme would have been hot property, but when he arrived at Barcelona, Louis Van Gaal had no interest in playing a ‘number 10’.

Riquelme was given little game time and regularly played out of position. His lack of pace, trickery and ability to play directly, were badly exposed.

It was clear that Riquelme had been played out of position when Barcelona sold him to lowly Villarreal. The “Yellow Submarine” allowed him to roam the space between the midfield and the strikers, and find holes in the opposition’s defence.

Juan Roman Riquelme. Photo: Luis Bagu/Getty Images

The team found immediate success, finishing as high as third in the league in 2004/05. Riquelme scored 15 goals and helped Diego Forlan win the European Golden Boot that season.

He looked like a completely different player. Suddenly, we realised he was world-class.

We may never have known how good he actually was if he hadn’t found a team that was willing to play him in his best position.

Is the ‘Number 10’ Dead?

The ‘number 10’ isn’t completely extinct yet. There are still some great players out there who are arguably keeping the position alive such as James Rodriguez, Mesut Ozil and Juan Mata.

It seems likely that many young players will suffer a similar fate to Riquelme, though, and they are even less likely to get the second chance he got at Villarreal.

Sadly, many technically gifted youngsters destined to be the next Eusebio or Dennis Bergkamp may never get the chance to show their true quality.

Athlete Confidence in Anti-Doping Plummets During Pandemic

By Ciaran O’Mahony

Sports Federations insist Covid-19 lockdowns won’t stop them catching dopers. But athletes are less optimistic, according to recent surveys.

The results of Global Athlete’s “Return to Play Survey” show that many international athletes are concerned their counterparts “will use this time to dope.”

The organisation’s Director-General, Rob Koehler, says the survey asked athletes about the effects of Covid-19 on their lives. Doping was top of their list of concerns.

“We heard from 375 Athletes from 23 countries representing all continents, and from 49 summer [Olympic] and 18 winter [Olympic] sports,” says Koehler.

“The majority of athletes were concerned with the lack of doping controls during the pandemic, while also indicating that they felt some athletes will take advantage of the lack of doping control,” he says.

“We recognize the sample base may not reflect the voice of the entire athlete community but it does give us some insight,” according to Koehler.

Of the 375 athletes surveyed, 63% identified as female, 36% as male and 1% as other. They have also competed at the highest levels of professional sport such as – 28% Olympic/Paralympics, 46% World Championships, 11% World Cups and 15% national competitions.

Here’s how they felt about doping control during the pandemic:

How concerned are you with the lack of doping controls during the pandemic?

  • 19% Extremely concerned
  • 25% Very concerned
  • 21% Moderately concerned
  • 14% Slightly concerned
  • 19% No concerned at all

With the lack of doping control, how likely do you believe it is that some athletes in your sport discipline will be to use this time to dope?

  • 25% Extremely likely
  • 30% Somewhat likely
  • 16% Neither likely nor unlikely
  • 17% Somewhat unlikely
  • 12% Extremely unlikely

These results follow the University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s study, which anonymously surveyed 1400 American athletes in 2020. Over 50% of these athletes believed their international competitors would take advantage of significant dips in doping tests during the Covid-19 pandemic. As many as 30% believed their compatriots would do the same.

Photo: Julien Hekimian/Sygma via Getty Images

Despite these statistics, International Testing Agency (ITA) spokeswoman Marta Nawrocka insists their anti-doping program “is not a frail system that has come to a halt because of the effects of the pandemic.”

The ITA is leading anti-doping for the Tokyo Olympics, and is administering tests on a “country by country” basis to strike a balance between “public health first and anti-doping efforts second,” according to Nawrocka.

“Our absolute priority continues to be the protection of the health of all athletes and doping control personnel,” Nawrocka says.

“There were very few competitions taking place since past spring and so In-Competition testing numbers significantly dropped, we continued to implement our Out-Of-Competition testing program throughout the past year and continue to do so now,” she says.

“Periods without competitions or access to athletes for testing purposes will be taken into account once sports events start taking place again.”

Many international sports events have been cancelled or postponed since March 2020, causing a significant decrease of “in-competition” testing. Numerous out-of-competition testing missions were also suspended due to Government restrictions. This is evident in WADA statistics obtained by The Jaded Newsman, which show a nearly 50% decrease in drug testing last year.

Total Drug tests completed around the world. Source: WADA

But there was a testing resurgence in late-2020 and Ms Nawrocka says the ITA is pleased with their achievements given the challenges they faced.

“Overall, the drop in the out-of-competition testing numbers that we implemented for our partners in 2020 was less than 10%, which is a solid result considering the circumstances,” she says.

All mid-pandemic testing has been conducted using stringent sanitary protocols for athletes’ safety, according to Nawrocka.

“The current situation is definitely challenging and requires flexible approaches, but it does not mean that anti-doping actors are left empty handed. We still have a solid array of approaches to catch cheats,” she says.

These alternatives include risk assessment, intelligence, investigations, Athlete Biological Passport administration, Therapeutic Use Exemption management, results management and anti-doping education.

Olympic champion Callum Skinner isn’t surprised by athletes’ scepticism, but says we must give everyone the benefit of the doubt during this period, unless clear evidence emerges.

“Of course it’s a worry, testing rates have plummeted,” says Skinner.

The Scottish Cyclist, who won Gold and Silver Medals at the 2016 Olympics, has no doubt that doping occurs at the top level.

But he knows that many athletes compete clean and don’t deserve to perform under a cloud of suspicion as sports return.

“The system wasn’t water tight before and it isn’t now,” according to Skinner.

“I tend to stay away from accusing people with no evidence, we have plenty of confirmed cases to give our attention to that are mismanaged,” Skinner says.

“We’re in the unknown so I’d encourage people to measure their scepticism on a case by case basis,” he says.

Callum Skinner celebrates his Olympic achievements at the Team GB victory parade. Photo: Jan Kruger/Getty Images

Fellow Cycling medallist Alexander Kolobnev is less concerned about pandemic doping.

Kolobnev finished in 4th place at the Beijing Olympics, but was later awarded a Bronze medal after Davide Rebellin was stripped of his silver medal upon re-testing of blood and urine samples.

Dopers have always been out there, according to Kolobnev, but the pandemic will not exacerbate the problem.

He says testing will increase significantly in the final 100 days before the Olympics and “stupid cheaters” will not be able to maintain “top shape”.

Russian Cyclist and Olympic Bronze Medallist, Alexander Kolobnev. Photo: Pascal Pavani/Getty Images

“[Doping] has sense only if you [are] competing and not sitting in [a] sofa or do[ing] your virtual races,” Kolobnev says.

“Of course there will always be 1-4% of crazy or weak athletes who could use prohibited substance[s] or methods, but they always were,” he says.

“It’s part of the game. Find them and kick them out.”

As anti-doping bodies continue to adjust to Covid-19 restrictions, testing gaps and blind spots are increasing.

Have Dopers Escaped Detection During Covid-19 Lockdowns?

By Ciaran O’Mahony

Rob Heffernan is an Olympic Bronze medallist, but he has never stood on the coveted Olympic podium.

At London 2012, years of grinding through Ireland’s damp, scenic landscape drove Heffernan to a 4th place finish in the 50 km race walk.

He had fallen agonisingly short of Olympic glory. But rumours swirled that the man who took Gold – Sergey Kirdyapkin – was part of a state sponsored doping program.

Four years after returning to Ireland empty-handed, Heffernan was awarded Olympic Bronze in a special ceremony at City Hall, Cork. Kirdyapkin had been stripped of his title after failing multiple drug tests.

Rob Hefferan finally receives his Olympic Bronze medal in November 2016. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images

“To take a medal for Ireland in front of Buckingham palace was such an incredible feeling. It was great to take something back for the injustice that we have suffered over time by wrong doing. A small victory, [but] nonetheless a victory,” Heffernan says.

While his heroic performance in London was eventually rewarded, Heffernan is in little doubt that he’s been cheated out of other major honours.

“I have suffered more throughout my career to dopers,” Heffernan says.

“There are [other] medals and better positions that I should have now but there is nothing I can do about it.”

He tries not to dwell on these injustices as they will inevitably lead to anger and misery.

“You would be angry and frustrated as your life can be drastically different when your results are better on paper. I try not to waste too much energy thinking about these negative scenarios,” he says.

But with the Tokyo Olympics looming, sports fans could be forgiven for wondering if Covid-19 lockdowns have allowed ‘drug cheats’ to thrive.

Sport has rightly been scaled back as we’ve battled a virus that has taken over 2.1 million lives to date. But pandemic restrictions have also forced National Anti-doping Organisations (NADOs) to limit or completely suspend doping tests for extended periods.

The Jaded Newsman obtained WADA’s latest international testing figures – and they are alarming.

WADA Anti-doping Tests – 2019 vs 2020

 20192020
Jan17,53920,286
Feb23,81925,257
Mar26,93311,206
Apr25,219577
May27,1462,625
Jun26,9047,706
Jul28,08411,080
Aug29,36014,612
Sept26,63818,697
Oct26,89721,081
Nov26,46919,554
Dec20,87315,078
Annual Total305,881167,759

In 2019, 305,881 blood and urine samples were collected by NADOs around the world. But in a pandemic hit 2020, they collected just 167,759.

From March to August 2020, monthly testing figures were over 50% lower than the previous year. In April and May, in particular, there were 97.8% and 91.4% dips. 

Although testing increased in subsequent months, it was consistently lower, and more lockdowns in late 2020 and early 2021 have further weakened doping operations.  

Numerous NADOs told us their testing had been significantly effected:

  • Doping Authority Netherlands’ testing has dropped by 40% during the pandemic and with all sports except football currently suspended there, the situation is unlikely to improve any time soon.
  • National Anti-doping Agency (NADA) Germany have maintained strong out-of-competition testing, but in-competition testing has taken a major hit. There was a complete suspension of all testing from mid-March to mid-May 2020.   
  • The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES) didn’t test their athletes from March 27 to July 13 (resumption of urine collection) and October 26 (resumption of blood collection). Three quarters into their fiscal year, testing numbers are one-third lower.
  • The Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority’s* (ASADA) annual report for the 2019/20 financial year showed a 20% fall in testing on the previous year – from 5,523 samples to 4,414. However, state lockdowns extended well past this timeline.
  • The United States Anti-doping Authority (USADA) is yet to release lockdown testing figures, but they reduced their operations to “mission critical testing” during the Spring of 2020, while United Kingdom Anti-doping’s (UKAD) April-June figures show an almost 95% drop from 2019 (2,212 to 126 tests).  

*ASADA was replaced by Sport Integrity Australia at the end of the financial year

How will this affect clean sport?

President of Doping Authority Netherlands, Herman Ram, says “the impact of Covid-19 on our testing program has been, and still is, huge.”  

Ram cautions that it would be unfair to assume that athletes are taking advantage of reduced testing, but he concedes that he “would prefer to have more proof to support this.”

USADA CEO, Travis Tygart, knows that many athletes were doping before the pandemic and he has no doubt that some will view this period as a window of opportunity.

“The temptation to dope rises when there is a less likely chance of being caught due to known, reduced testing,” says Tygart.

Travis Tygart, President of USADA. Photo: John Thys/AFP via Getty Images

Studies have shown that minor doses of PEDs taken during “off-peak” periods can be undetectable in urine or blood samples a year later. But they can provide performance-enhancing benefits for up to 4 years.

For example, the most common PED detected by NADOs is anabolic steroids. A study by Scientists at the University of Oslo suggests that these substances can provide muscle boosts that potentially last for decades. Athletes would therefore reap the benefits long after the steroids were detectable in their system.

Drug Free Sport New Zealand CEO, Nick Paterson, is concerned that the problem may have intensified, but stresses that the vast majority of athletes will not be swayed one way or the other by recent events.

“The lower amount of testing in 2020 certainly means that both detection and deterrence has dropped off,” Paterson says.

“However, just because a storekeeper turns her back or takes a call when you’re in a shop, does not mean you immediately start stealing their goods, does it? Most people have better ethics than that,” he says.

Some research suggests that many don’t. Olivier de Hon, Harm Kuipers and Maarten van Bottenburg conducted a comprehensive review of academic studies on the prevalence of doping up to 2015. Their review found that between 14-39% of anonymously surveyed athletes were doping – much higher than the 1-2% who failed drug tests during this period.

Another study conducted randomised response surveys of 1,203 athletes at the IAAF World Athletics Championships (South Korea) and 965 athletes at the Pan Arab Games (Qatar).  They revealed that over 30-43% of the WAC athletes had admitted to doping within the last 12 months, with over 45-57% of the PAG athletes doing the same. The findings were so controversial that their publication was blocked for 6 years.  

Photo: Patrik Stollarz/Bongarts/Getty Images

While it’s clear that many athletes were already doping. The question is, has that number increased? And could the impacts on testing help them get away with it?

Paterson highlights certain barriers to entry regardless of athletes’ intent.

“If you have been a clean athlete and prior to 2020 were not doping, where would you suddenly get supplies from and how?”

“Purchasing prohibited substances is not as easy as placing an on-line grocery order,” says Paterson. “Many of the athletes doping during this period are therefore likely to have already been cheating or well on the path to do[ing] so.”

Sport Integrity Australia (SIA) CEO, David Sharpe, holds a similar view – “Athletes willing to cheat or win at any cost will always look for ways to cheat, whether that be through advancement in science, unethical practices or during periods where testing may be limited.”

NADA Germany says the uncertainty around the return of competitions could result in immediate and unexpected spikes in testing, making it extremely difficult for athletes to schedule comprehensive doping programs in lockdown.

“PEDs are only relevant if you train for a goal. As many competitions are cancelled and athletes do not know when testing is back. Out-of-competition schemes are in place and will start without any further notice. The unpredictability of the system is a decisive advantage for testing authorities,” they say.

WADA spokesman James Fitzgerald says major physical gains are also unattainable due to the closure of training facilities.

“Most performance-enhancing drugs work in conjunction with high-quality, strenuous training and, with COVID-related restrictions and lockdowns in place, many athletes do not have access to their normal training facilities. This mitigates the risk of athletes deciding to cheat.”

Nonetheless, NADOs hope to resume blood and urine testing at previous levels ASAP.

In most cases, that won’t be possible for some time, but New Zealand is a rare exception. From mid-March to June 10 – and briefly in August 2020 – they had a strict lockdown and testing was suspended for 11 weeks. Nevertheless, they collected 1,061 samples by the end of the financial year, against a target of 1,350 samples.

But countries like The Netherlands are up against it, according to Mr Ram. “We will be in lockdown for at least another four weeks,” he says.

“Once the lockdown is ended, it will still take some time to restart them [and] our government is discussing a curfew.”

NADOs have emphasised that drug tests are not the only tool available to catch dopers. They have invested significantly in anti-doping education programs, and intelligence/whistleblower investigation teams – to catch drug cheats who are beating the tests.

“Any effective anti-doping program cannot be reliant solely on testing,” says SIA’s David Sharpe.

He explains that Intelligence helps NADOs decide:

  • Which athletes to test and when to test them
  • Which sports are most at risk of doping
  • What emerging substances pose a threat to athlete health and sport integrity.
David Sharpe, CEO of Sport Integrity Australia. Source: Sport Integrity Australia, Facebook page.

Athlete Biological Passports (ABPs) are another crucial weapon. They are developed through a sequence of tests that provide longitudinal biological profiles of each athlete. ABPs provide a specific reference range for key biological variables in athletes’ blood and urine and can therefore detect unusual results even when PEDs are no longer in an athlete’s system.

The storage and re-analysis of long-term blood and urine samples will also help to uncover irregularities in the future, according to the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC).

“All athletes would be very familiar with the IOC’s re-testing program which has proved successful in back-capturing drug cheats by using new technologies to detect past infringements,” says the AOC.

“The AOC doesn’t believe drug cheats can take any comfort from the impact of the pandemic on anti-doping programs.”

As a beneficiary of re-testing, Rob Heffernan has a clear message for athletes who might be tempted to dope during this tumultuous period.

“Athletes need to know if they cheat, they will be caught. And if you do cheat, I feel if its conclusive, you should be banned for life – no second chances.”