Catching up with Professor Yannis Pitsiladis
Professor Yannis Pitsiladis, who’s also a member of the International Olympic Committee’s Medical and Scientific Commission and chairs the Science Commission of the International Federation of Sports Medicine, also discusses the case of Caster Semenya and intersex athletes and his mission to lead a team to a sub-2 hour marathon, completely within athletics regulations.
As a member of several high-profile organisations, Yannis is at the forefront of helping to solve some of sport’s most pressing issues.
Alternatively, most of the podcast is transcribed below.
Well I’m a failed athlete. As a youngster my dream was to go to the Olympic Games and I never achieved that. So I’ve done the second best which is to help others get there. I was a volleyball player. I played at a very high level in Greece where I grew up. And now I dedicate my life to helping others get to the Olympic Games in a safe way, in a clean way, in a healthy way and in their journey I also realised that there’s the dark side of sport which is the doping issues, corruption and more recently the realisation that we need to try and find ways to fairly integrate some of the interesting quirks of nature. For example, the recent Caster Semenya case with intersex athletes. And also keeping in mind now with the legislation in certain countries permitting the third gender, which is basically you can declare what gender you identify, is how do we integrate in a consistent way to the Olympic charter these athletes with no discrimination and according to the law. So it’s quite a complicated agenda there but it keeps you awake at night and there’s never a dull moment.
We’ll talk about Caster Semenya and intersex athletes in just a bit. You’ve been here at the university for a while now – what attracted you here and why does it work so well for you with all your other roles you have as well?
What attracted me here, I remember at the interview, was that I was given the freedom to focus entirely on sport and that may seem obvious but unfortunately research into sport doesn’t attract the same kind of money as, say, cancer research, biomedical research. So a lot of the traditional universities have moved away from supporting sports science. Brighton is one of those universities who – rightly I believe – sees sport as being an important discipline and discipline of equal importance to the other big disciplines like medicine and biomedicine, physiology, biochemistry and pharmacology and all the rest. And I was given that freedom to invest in that area and six years later I feel vindicated with that decision because I’m working almost exclusively in sport but also bringing to it the kind of medical side. So it’s understanding the limits to human performance but also understanding the health side away from you the university.
Can you just explain the other very high profile roles you have elsewhere, such as the IOC.
I realised more in the last few years that to really get my research from the laboratory right through to the field – when I say the field, I’m talking about getting it into the Olympic Games, getting into the World Championships, getting into the World Cup – we need to be part of the system. Often many of my colleagues will sit and critique the system from outside. I’ve realised that by being inside the system you can actually help transform it and rebrand it. So in the last years, I’ve become a member of the IOC’s medical and scientific commission. I chair the Science Commission on International Sports Medicine Federation. I am on the executive of the International Sports Medicine Federation. And in those roles, amongst others, it allows me to really assess the current status quo and bring in new technology. So, I mean, I would argue I’m one of the unique scientists in the world who actually does the science in the laboratory. That’s my bread and butter, that’s my passion. But I actually spend a lot of time as well attending committee meetings, commission meetings, being at big championships, big games, where I can try and bring in these technologies. Try and bring in these new approaches and also try to rebrand sport in general. So quite a unique position but it’s also quite a challenge to actually balance all these different balls.
Okay. Let’s talk about how you’re working to change some of these things and we’ll chat first about cheating in sport – doping. You’ve been working on research to find ways to beat the cheats. How easy is it at the moment for athletes to do that, to get away with doping?
Well, getting exact prevalence data of how big the problem is – that’s actually quite difficult as you can appreciate. But only last year there was a publication that emerged that actually asked athletes at the highest level of competition whether they had doped in the last year and the questionnaire they used was based on a system that couldn’t identify the individual. So it was one of the best ways to get to as close to the reality as possible. And what was really worrying about the outcome was that in the competition that we evaluated, one was the Pan Arab Games and the other was the World Championships in Daegu, it transpired that 45% in one of those competitions and 30% in the other admitted to doping in the last year. So, if you think of that data and keeping in mind that about 1% of athletes are actually caught doping then actually you can see the kind of mismatch there. So that tells me that the current system – which has improved dramatically over the years, thanks to the excellent work with the World Anti-Doping Agency – is still not achieving the kind of levels of catching the cheaters as the public would want, and as involved as elite sport would want too. So that means that what we have to do is think of how to build on the current system, because we can’t say the system is failing, it’s just not working effectively. How can we build on it to make it more effective?
I guess part of the problem might be that the measures in place around drug testing varies massively from sport to sport. So is it naive to think that most of the sport we’re watching is completely clean?
It’s very difficult – breaking it down even into different sports, or actually different countries, which is also another factor that we have to take into account. But what is very, very clear is that doping is not, for example, a Russian problem. We hear every day, even this last weekend in an article in The Times about how Russia is is leading the world in terms of doping, it’s very clear from some data published in 2011 that there are other countries where doping is almost at the same levels as what we had seen in Russia in recent years. And clearly that prevalence of doping will vary in different sports. But my focus in terms of what I’m trying to do is very much focused on Olympic sports, so focusing very much on on the sports that are in the remit of the Olympic Games and the kind of flagship events for the Olympics – track and field. Those are the ones that most people tend to watch during the Olympic Games. Tokyo is coming up very, very soon. I don’t waste a moment in my working and sleeping time thinking of how we can actually clean up athletics in the first instance, because once we can do that, I think the other sports will also follow.
I think unfortunately the kind of mantra that we hear every day is that the cheaters will be ahead of the testers. That’s what we hear everyday. My mantra is exactly the opposite, that the testers and those of us who support the testers should be well ahead of the cheaters and that’s the paradigm shift that we are trying to bring into effect. And I feel with the recent developments, with the technological advancements that are happening and have been happening for the last five years, this is the time to do it. And if we don’t do it now, the world’s most valuable brand – sport – may have the same kind of result that happened in ancient Greece with the Olympics because, as we all know the the Olympic Games were born in ancient Greece and eventually ended ended because of corruption, drugs, all the kind of things that are happening now. So I’m also one of those academics that actually looks at history – tries to learn from history so we can improve the future.
So where are you at with your research, including what’s going on within the University of Brighton?
So what we launched actually almost a decade ago was the idea that using cutting edge genomic technology so the data that had emerged and the technology knowhow that had emerged with the sequencing of the genome, which is now more than a decade old, how could we apply that kind of technology into anti-doping? And I spent most of that first ten years trying to convince the system to invest in those technologies. You can appreciate that a decade ago sequencing the genome of one individual could cost $50 million. Now we can do it here in Brighton for £100, so you can see now it’s become more amenable. We have a facility that is, I would argue, an area of sport and sports medicine second to none – and that’s been invested in by the World Anti-Doping Agency, has been invested in by the International Olympic Committee, invested in by some of the big biotech companies, very much trying to help us use this technology in sport, in anti-doping, to try and cure the problem. And so I feel now, in the last year, it’s all come together and sometimes from the least likely areas we get investment. For example, we are very happy to announce in in the next three weeks in ancient Olympia – the spiritual home of the Olympics – the big support from one of the biggest biotech companies in the world based in Shenzhen in China, a company called BGI, who’s actually donating one of their top of the range new sequencers to help us try and clean up sport. So, there’s an example of Chinese technology, with actually some support from Russia as well, helping us being able to implement the very best technology available in the world and trying to direct that to sport. I mean this is quite a unique position. Often I wake up in the morning and I’m actually pinching myself saying ‘Is this really happening? Can I get to the end of this?’. Some the best scientists in anti-doping will all come down to Olympia in a few weeks time to actually also discuss how can we use this technology. The solution is not going to be based on what we do only in Brighton, it’s going to be based on these international consortia, working together, bringing new blood into the field and then once we can actually implement these new approaches, then I think we could also learn from this and use this technology to actually keep our athletes safe, also in the Olympics and into elite sport, because we know there are all sorts of conditions that we hear about concussion that athletes are facing.
Often the rules change and sometimes they surprise us. For example you would have seen in the Rio Games, in boxing, the headgear was removed. Well, you know, we need this kind of technology to ensure that our decisions are actually the right ones. We’re going to talk shortly about the situation with Caster Semenya and then also the how to integrate intersex athletes – again, the same technology we’re going to be using to rebrand anti-doping can also be used to develop the biomarkers that makes the integration of the likes of Caster Semenya, the transgender athletes, fair.
So, I think we are in the most exciting time in my career in sports science and sports medicine.
We’ve had the narrative around Russia for the last couple of years about state sponsored doping. Clearly Russia is still banned from athletics. They’ve been banned from competing as a country at the last few Olympics, with their athletes having to compete as neutrals. We’re just one year away from the Tokyo Games – at this point, has enough changed for Russia to compete at those Games?
Well, I can tell you from my side, my involvement in that process. At this stage, I have to summarise what is called the Brighton model. The Brighton model is to try and make sport fair and involves three pillars – the kind of analogy we use is a three legged stool. The first pillar we call the prevention of doping, and that’s very much the kind of educational processes the deterrents in anti-doping, for example, keeping urine blood etc stored for as long as 10 years. We we can’t predict the developments of science week to week – can we really predict what’s going to happen in 10 years?
So that’s the first pillar, the second pillar is promotion of clean sport, which very much involves better testing.
The third pillar, which is equally important, is giving athletes alternatives to drugs. We can’t keep on directing to athletes saying ‘bad boy bad girl, you’ve been cheating’. Sport is big business – in certain parts of the world., it’s the only way out of poverty. So we need to modernise our thinking and we need to give athletes the setup required, the support they need, to perform at the very highest level, achieve their potential within the rules and those three pillars are what we’ve implemented in the last 18 months in Russia. I’ve now visited Russia three times in the last 18 months working closely with the Russian Olympic Committee working very closely with RUSADA, the Russian anti-doping authority, and I can tell you their efforts are as good as the very best elsewhere in the world. And supported actually by UK Anti-Doping, for example, the Russian anti-doping authority is very much being supported by UKAD, modernising and rebranding them and changing their culture.
In the next few weeks I publish a paper, a perspective, on the efforts that Russia has done in order to come out the other side. Obviously there’s more work to be done. But my view, and I think others will share this view, is rather than kicking someone when they down you’ve got to try and help them get up – get up in a way that allows them to come back to the table and I feel that a lot of that change has happened. Yes, we still have some time to go to Tokyo – it’s coming and coming very, very fast but I feel optimistic and I hope anyway that they can turn the corner with the support of various organisations around the world and we can see clean Russian athletes competing. I know that’s what they want. I speak to the Russian athletes, I speak to the coaches, I speak to those involved in sport and I speak to the young anti-doping officers who are very much involved in touring one of the biggest countries in the world, Russia, to try and preach anti-doping. It’s a very tough job and I am very impressed what they are doing. But obviously there’s more work to be done there.
But you feel that the penny has dropped now?
There’s no doubt in my mind the penny has dropped for some time now, and I even believe that the efforts that Russia is doing in the next five years could be a model for other countries to actually emulate. I know some of your listeners will be saying ‘what is he talking about?’ Well I go to Russia. I see things on the ground, firsthand. I’m not getting my information from the media and not getting information second and third hand – I’m there, I’m speaking to the people involved. I see their trauma. I see their hurt. I see the aspiration of young people and I’m confident that in the next years that we will see a reformed Russia. And I hope also rebranded sport globally.
Let’s talk about your research with transgender athletes, something which is going on here at the University of Brighton. The study obviously links with what’s going on at the moment with Caster Semenya – South Africa’s multiple world and Olympic gold medalist, not transgender of course, but a female athlete with abnormal levels of the male hormone testosterone. For those that don’t know, she’s an 800m specialist who has just had a rule enforced by athletics world governing body – the IAAF – temporarily suspended. That rule ordered her to take testosterone limiting medication if she wants to continue racing as her preferred distance.
It’s topical at the moment with and the world is watching how the IAAF deals with the Caster Semenya case in terms of of intersex. It’s a very difficult case, in the sense that if I was an expert on her supporting her side of events I could easily argue a case and I could easily argue a case against her. That’s how difficult the situation is. So I have complete empathy for the fact that she doesn’t want to take any forms of drugs to actually be able to compete in one sense. You can actually see the problem. I’ve spent my whole career fighting for drug free sport and now I’m one of those scientists advocating that we use drugs to allow her to compete fairly – so you can see the conundrum, you can see the difficulty there, but at the end of the day, the way I see this – and this is the effort and that kind of paradigm that we use here the University of Brighton – is okay, what does the law say – and the law in many countries and a number of those countries is increasing, is that whatever you self identify – that is your right, in terms of transgender but also in terms of intersex. We have to also keep in mind the Olympic Charter, which states very, very clearly there should be no discrimination of any sort in terms of gender, sex, religion etc etc. And the third aspect that I consider is what does the science say. I have to admit here that there is very, very little data.
So in situations where there’s very little data, that allows everyone to become an expert – that allows the media in some ways to become the expert, and that allows someone just because they’ve competed in the Olympic Games or someone in elite sport to become an expert. Well that doesn’t qualify you as an expert. What qualifies you as an expert is really understanding the data, generating new data and presenting a multidisciplinary solution and that’s all we are trying to do. So the basis of all this, having realised that there isn’t a sufficient amount of data, actually very little data, we’ve been working very hard in the last 12 months. We’ve been supported by the International Olympic Committee and by WADA – the World Doping Agency – to generate for the first time the compelling data we need to help us provide as fair as possible a recommendation. And that’s what we’re doing. And briefly to summarise all we’re doing in Brighton, we we are doing two big studies.
The first one is understanding what is called the muscle memory. I’m jumping around a little bit but if we consider an athlete who goes to the Olympic Games as a male and then the next Olympic Games and identifies as a female, they have the right to go to the Games, and if we go along with the IAAF belief at the moment to actually limit their testosterone levels to below 5 nanomoles per litre, will that be sufficient? Because one has to appreciate that throughout their adult life, until the transition, muscle was working in a hormonal milieu of very high testosterone levels, the levels of a male now working in a hormonal milieu of a female. But has the muscle now converted into female? Now that’s obviously very simplistic. I’m using this kind of jargon very loosely, but that is a big issue. It’s called the muscle memory aspect and that’s what the World Anti-Doping Agency wants us to focus on. Why? It also has anti-doping implications. If you think about athletes who take drugs like testosterone, do those drugs, have long lasting effects throughout one’s life. We know of some cases where athletes have actually taken testosterone, served their ban and come back to elite sport. Well when they came back, even if they were clean when they came back, could testosterone that they had five years ago, six years ago still be having an effect through this issue of muscle memory? Also let’s be more specific about the Caster Semenya case. She’s been competing as an intersex athlete. We don’t know all her medical conditions per se, but let’s assume that her testosterone works and meaning that she’s at high levels of testosterone. The question is that she’s already therefore benefited from that high level of testosterone, which means even if she reduces testosterone, there could still be the residual effect which gives an advantage.
So one could argue that even now, if she was prepared to lower testosterone levels to compete, as we say, now fairly – she could still have an advantage from having high levels of testosterone for most of her adult life. So these are the issues that we are studying with support from the World Anti-Doping Agency and from the International Olympic Committee.
More recently in the last few months we’ve also been supported by the International Olympic Committee to do one of the largest, if not the largest transgender studies – it’s actually called the Tavistock transgender athlete study. And from the name you can sense where we’re doing this we’re doing it – at the Tavistock gender clinic in London, in collaboration with the University of Brighton, where for the first time we’re taking 20 males who will transition to female and 20 females will transition to male. We’re going to do all the tests we consider necessary before the transition and then during the transition we’ll follow them for as many years as they will consent to really understand the transition process. Also for the first time to really understand what happens to performance – at the moment there’s some data making some kind of assumption as to what could happen to performance, but we don’t really know. And so this study will allow us, for the first time, to actually document the impact of the transition process and the impact of sex hormones on performance, but also on issues like muscle memory, on issues of bone health and on other issues that will really help us produce the solutions required to clean up sport, rebrand sport and to fairly integrate both – two very different conditions – intersex and and transgender athletes, into elite sport.
Talking about Caster Semenya. She appealed the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s decision to enforce the IAAF ruling – and a Swiss court has now temporarily suspended that enforced ruling, meaning for now she is free to compete. But this is clearly not over. Just the latest development, and there’s some strong quotes from Semenya saying ‘I am a woman and a world class athlete’ and then saying ‘the IAAF will not drug me’. I guess, like you say, there are people who may be placing themselves as experts but there’s also a view from some on the outside that this is ethics against science – and that’s the issue, because we’ve seen three global organisations that promote women’s sports, writing to the IAAF claiming the rules they’re trying to enforce upon athletes like Semenya are discriminatory and enforce gender inequality. But then you’ve also got athletes competing against Caster Semenya who feel they’ve had an opportunity for their own success taken away. It’s really tough isn’t it…
You’ve beautifully summarised the situation and I have real empathy for Caster Semenya in a sense and the likes of myself could easily defend her position, so I totally get that and at the same time from my position in the science commissions of the IOC and also in the International Sports Medicine Federation is to consider the other athletes, the athletes she’ll compete against. We’ve got to try and balance all these competing interests.
You talk about how ethics and science may be separate. No, not at all. Everything we’re doing in terms of the scientific process requires the strongest ethics. So that is never far away from my mind. We have some of the world’s top bio ethicists advising us on all of these things and some of the world’s best lawyers looking at the legal side of things, so our approach at Brighton is very much a multidisciplinary one. So going back to Caster’s case – as I say I fully understand her – but I think her case is the perfect example of what we can call the fluidity of gender, you know, because it’s not as simple as I’m male or I’m female. There’s fluidity there.
At the moment, and for the foreseeable future, most of Olympic sport will be the male competitions and the female competitions. Interestingly in Tokyo we will have a number of events that will be mixed, so clearly even there, the IOC is trying to modernise, but in the events that that Caster Semenya wishes to take part, they are very much in force for good reasons separated into male and female. Why is that done? That is done to try and make competition fair.
Now in her case being an intersex athlete, it’s not as simple as she’s a woman or a man. She’s an intersex athlete which makes her integration more complicated and not as simple as I’m a woman or I’m a man. And therefore that is why it becomes so difficult. And don’t get me wrong, the scientific community is not united in what I’m saying. I don’t know what the numbers are. But probably as much as maybe 50% of the scientific community will not agree with what I’m saying. But what I’ve also done to try and understand the other 50% is I’ve been on a tour for the last 12 months proposing or assessing our proposition, which happens to be a similar proposition to what the IAAF are actually turning into a rule. And I’ve gone to the Sports Medicine congresses. I actually gave a talk here in Brighton, together with Joanna Harper, presenting our solution. We’ve actually published, only a few months ago, the outcome of asking the audience after we presented the best of what was available and asking what do you think? I can tell you the data – 73% of the audience agreed that what we were proposing, which happens to be what the IAAF is proposing, is the better of the solutions. It’s not perfect. It’s far from perfect. But what we have to think about is the Olympic Games are happening very soon. Actually the World Championships in Doha are happening this year. So what can we do now? Clearly whatever solution is proposed, and I’m not here to to actually say what that will be, but whatever solution is proposed will be fluid. We can relook at it again and again and again as new data emerges, as we learn more. And then let’s make the most fair decision possible for Caster and her likes, so that they can compete fairly, but also for all the other athletes.
Let’s talk about something which is I’m a little bit less controversial. The sub two hour marathon project – you’re one project and there’s also a very high profile other project which is going on as well. How close are we to seeing a sub two hour marathon?
It was actually a project that we launched in 2014, and maybe your listeners won’t be aware of this, that we launched as an anti-doping project.
This project started very much supporting the third pillar of our Brighton anti-doping approach, which is peak performance without doping. But we had the same problem that the Russians have and that is how to convince a system that believes – and when talk about the system we talk about the athletes, the managers, the coaches, the support teams.
The belief that the only way to success is through drugs. So we thought – can we break, what in 2014 was considered crazy, this two hour barrier? We launched the project together with Jos Hermens from Global Sport, we started putting the consortium together in that process, however it became clear that there was a lot of money to be made and Jos Hermens joined the Nike team – the Breaking2 project – and the $15 million that were going to come to our Sub 2 project, the anti-doping project, became the Breaking2 project – which became very much about innovation. We saw the fantastic Eliud Kipchoge almost breaking the 2 hour barrier in Monza in 2017. But what it really did – it made him and others believe that the two hour was possible, which meant he went on to break the world record and smash the world record in Berlin last year. That I think was a big influence of this crazy idea that we had back in 2014.
More recently, because Nike has made as much publicity as they can from selling this new innovative shoe series – which indeed is fantastic by the way – there’s other issues we can discuss about whether it is actually fair to have a carbon fibre plate in a shoe – but for me it’s innovation and you know and in the spirit of universality or sport, if it’s universally available to others, I think it’s a move in the right direction. It’s replacing drugs with technology. And we can have another debate some other time. But more recently what has happened now that Nike have pulled out of that race, I found out like most of your listeners in the media that one of the richest individuals in the UK is not supporting the Brighton Sub 2 anti-doping project, but the previous project – just in the guise now of INEOS to try and break this barrier in London later on this year, as you can tell, I have mixed feelings about it. But what I think will be fantastic though is that it has brought that discussion to the fore, which means the same day INEOS announced the attempt, we received two serious declarations of interest to support our project – because our project has had a lack of funding, but we’ve made big progress.
The innovations that we’ve generated are the same innovations, or some of them are, that actually Eliud Kipchoge used to break the world record in Berlin. The same innovations, like for example, the carbohydrate drink that we here at the University of Brighton developed with one of our PhD students, that innovation was what helped him do that amazing performance in Monza. It’s the same innovation that helped him break the Berlin record and I’m pretty sure he’ll be using that innovation as well when he attempts a two hour in London later on this year.
So I feel that with the race, this idea, coming to the fore, I hope that some wealthy business person in the audience will hear about this. I’ve just come from a meeting in Tel Aviv in Israel a few weeks ago – it was the first time the Nike Breaking2 project and the original Sub 2 project ourselves were actually debating about the merits of the idea and it was actually very interesting to do that. And even at the end of that day, I got another declaration of interest of support from Israel.
One of the innovations we wanted to do is to actually do the attempt on the Dead Sea. Why the Dead Sea? Because there’s approximately 5% extra oxygen, given the fact that it’s such a low altitude, so therefore that idea that we launched back then may actually be the end of the story eventually where we can break that barrier within the rules, on the Dead Sea, and that’s what we’re working towards now. And I think the attempt later on this year – which won’t be, from what I hear. according to the rules – will help us, I believe, get support so we can demonstrate that we can do amazing things, therefore really help athletes fulfil their potential cleanly and rebrand the whole idea and move away from drugs.
When you say about doing it within the rules with Eliud Kipchoge’s attempt – are you saying without the multiple pacing teams?
Absolutely, I mean, one of the issues is pacing. As you know, what we saw in Monza was there was a group of pacemakers that were coming in and out, you know, and that’s actually not allowed by the rules. And so what we are wanting to do, and that was the idea right from the start when we launched the Sub 2 project is to have the very best athletes involved in the attempt as a race, where one will be helping the other, they all share the prize at the end.
So it’s to their benefit that the team actually crosses that line, almost what happens in cycling and that kind of approach, and for that kind of approach you can’t have a situation where people enter the race and leave the race. So they need to be in from the beginning. Also, what I’ve learned since 2014 is that whenever we develop an innovation and we talked about it, it was immediately adopted by the opposing teams. So we have two new innovations that I think will make the difference to allow us to do it with in a competitive situation that I can’t mention, because I’m pretty sure either the INEOS team or the next guise of that team will try and do it before we have the money to do it.
We are confident, our steering committee are confident, that we can do that within the rules with two innovations that I can’t share with your listeners – but that it’s very exciting.
I guess the other issue is finding the right athlete. Hypothetical situation, let’s say Eliud Kipchoge goes sub 2 with this INEOS project and he does it within these different parameters. Could you maybe tempt him onboard to come into your one as well because he’s obviously the best marathon runner out there at the moment…
It’s an interesting question and your listeners may be interested to know that I’d been studying and working with Eliud for many, many years before the Breaking2 attempt and even before the Breaking2 attempt was even dreamt about, I had invited him to join the original Sub 2 project, I mean at that time you’ve got to appreciate that his manager was an equal partner to our project, and he was also going to help produce the legacy for Kenya – the Eliud, let’s say, innovation centre in Kenya would be there to produce legacies for Kenya – we would have Kenyan sports nutritionists, Kenyan physiotherapists, why not Kenyan managers etc etc…
And we had discussed that in Athens some years ago when he was awarded the best marathoner of the year, his first award some years ago. So unfortunately then money came into play and and obviously if you are offered huge financial incentives by Nike – which was always his sponsor – then I mean I don’t hold it against him or his manager that he had to go in and do this for Nike. So I’m pretty confident, I’m actually surprised, that the Breaking2 attempt didn’t break the two hour barrier in Monza.
I was commentating at the time and I was certain that they would break it. Actually in Israel a few weeks ago I realised why they didn’t break it. The scientist who was presenting the approach talked about how they were trying to maintain his body weight within a 2% weight loss. Well if that is righ, then it’s exactly what you don’t want to do. I would argue if he was 5% or 6% or 7% or 8% or even 10% – if he had a 10% weight loss by the end of that attempt, he would become more efficient and he would smash the two hour.
So for me, therefore, London – as they do things and have learnt from the previous attempts, some of the team will be the same, I’m confident they will do it. What I want to propose to Eliud and the likes of Eluid after that is say, well join us and let’s do it within the rules. You’ve made an interesting comment there about Eliud being the best distance runner of all time. I would like to disagree with you, and I think his manager, Jos Hermens, who knows as a previous world record holder himself, really understands these athletes better than anyone else in the world. I’ve done a lot of measurements in the likes of Eliud, in the likes of Kenenisa Bekele and others, and for me Kenenisa Bekele is another notch up in terms of talent. The reality is that Eliud is the most professional athlete in distance running of all time. Combine that with his exceptional talent, you see what you have. But I think the likes of Kenenisa Bekele – I’ve been in touch with him even in the last few days saying ‘Kenenisa, you know you will be the guy who will be remembered as the one who could have and if you don’t do this now you may regret it for the rest of your life’. And that’s the kind of language I used in my exchanges with him. And so, if we can get the support required, I would like to see the likes of Eliud Kipchoge, Kenenisa Bekele, Wilson Kipsang, who in 2017 together with the Sub 2 project, we nearly broke the world record in Tokyo. He’s a fantastic talent – put those kind of athletes together in a team, with those innovations I can’t talk about, we can do something really special and beyond and produce the legacy in Africa – Ethopia, Kenya and beyond – and replace drugs with science and medicine. So when you visit Ethiopia, when you visit Kenya, you can see the real legacy of the projects like the Breaking2, the INEOS project, the original Sub 2 – that drugs are eradicated.
I am so distraught, when, back in 2007, I could find EPO being sold on the corner – and I can go back now in 2019 and see EPO sold on the corner. Now that is not what we want, but where are the best athletes in the world currently living and training, whether they are Kenyan or Ethiopian or British? Where does Mo Farah train? He lives predominantly now in Ethiopia. We need to create the legacy in these countries to clean up sport. It’s pointless only having the best anti-doping practice in the UK, in Russia, in Germany, in Tokyo. We need it out in the field and we need to give these athletes alternatives. That is what the Sub 2 project is about. That is what we need to do, and I am confident that a holistic approach that I talked about before – prevention of doping, promotion of the clean athlete and peak performance without doping – that is a paradigm shift that’s required and that is what I think will produce the rebranding of sport that we all need.
I’m fairly sure a lot of running fans are going to be salivating at the idea of a super team that you were just talking about.
Let’s go back specifically to the University of Brighton – what attracted you to work within higher education?
That’s an excellent question and there are a number of reasons. One – I’m passionate about conveying my science to young people. When I lecture, I’m acting – I’m trying to really enthuse them and make science as interesting as it can be, because it is so very much interesting! For example, to teach about muscle physiology – if you are talking about Usain Bolt’s muscle, it becomes so much more interesting – if you’re trying to understand about genetics and therefore talk about the impact slavery may have had on genetic superiority and dispelling that myth, makes genetics interesting etc etc. So I came to a university, I became an academic, because of my passion in order to teach, but I wanted to teach things that I knew about firsthand.
So I didn’t get enough satisfaction of just reading about other people’s work and talking about that. We always do that of course, but I want to talk about my research and the work that we’ve been doing over the last 25 years or so. And the university sector is the best place to be able to do research where you can decide what you want to do and you’re not dictated by industry or dictated by other interests. And that’s one of the reasons why I left a Russell Group university – like Glasgow University – to come to Brighton.
Why? I came here because I was given the freedom to really focus on my passion, which is sports science and sports medicine and to do it freely without someone telling you you have to study this. At the end of the day, if one is motivated by money, they wouldn’t become a university professor. I became a university professor because that allows us freedom to express your ideas to research where you’re interested in. And for me, what is also unique about Brighton is that we have some of the most amazing technology,I would argue, in the world of sports science and sports medicine, in the most beautiful surroundings and geographically one of the most important parts of the UK.
We are only an hour and a half away from Heathrow Airport, Gatwick is even closer, half an hour or so. So for me this should be the mecca of sports science and sports medicine and let’s work with industry rather than dictated by industry. And that independence is why I became a university professor, why I’m here at the University of Brighton, and it’s a decision I’ve never regretted.
Right, at the end of every podcast we ask some quick fire questions away from work. So the first question is – What advice would you give to your younger self?
The advice I’d give a younger myself would be try and do the things that you want to do even if it may take you down a path that you may have not thought of, because if you don’t do what you really wish to do, you may regret it for the rest of your life. So have no regrets. That is what I would argue to the younger me.
Can you pick a favourite place in Sussex?
Eastbourne, where I have my facility, my laboratory, my home and where very few people know me, so I can also have quiet that I need to contemplate my ideas. I run on the on the beach front, I run on the Downs, and a lot of my ideas emerge when I’m actually almost alone. There’s no way better than Eastbourne and surrounding areas.
What are you currently reading, watching and/or listening to?
I am very much watching at the moment how companies like Tesla and related companies are trying to get the driverless cars not to hit people or not to drive into polls etc, because I believe the same kind of approach will be used to modernise sports. So it’s related to what I do and I’m watching what they are doing and I’m trying to learn from them – so my life tends to be quite boring, which is very much focused on understanding how I can become better in the science I do from those who are better than me.
Describe your perfect weekend…
My perfect weekend is sitting in a vehicle following my top athlete who’s competitive and wins the race with our innovations – as happened in in Berlin in in 2016. So for me, that’s the perfect weekend.
If you could invite three people to dinner, past or present, who would they be and why?
Socrates, Archimedes and Darwin, and I would sit them around the table and I would try and understand how in their times they could come up with things that today we take for granted, but for them was almost seeing so far into the future. And I’d like to see and understand what made them tick, how they were able to do what they did, because everything we do today is based on their ideas. And I would argue that if we had half the insight they have, imagine what we could do. So they are quite remarkable and I would love to have a dinner with them.