When he was called up on stage at the Ironman European Championships awards, Sam Gyde sported a Dopers Suck shirt to protest age group winner Antonio Colom - a former road cyclist who was banned for doping from 2009-2011. It was a last minute decision for this fast Belgian, and thus the cobbled look of that shirt, but it was a statement that quickly spread throughout the triathlon world.
Slowtwitch: Here we go again Sam.
Sam Gyde: Thanks for the opportunity to speak Herbert. Unlike Las Vegas, what happens in Frankfurt doesn’t seem to stay in Frankfurt.
ST: You just raced Ironman Frankfurt, and you did not have the race you wanted.
Sam: Leading up to the race my coach opted for another approach than we are used to with much more focus on intensity. I have never felt as strong in training and in the races leading up to this event, but in Frankfurt I couldn’t get the intensity up. I swam as slow as my pre-race easy swims and biked and ran at a heart rate that was 8-10 beats below my normal IM race intensity. Lots of people wouldn’t be too embarrassed with an 8h57 time but if you set your target at 8h40, then there is some reason to be disappointed.
ST: I guess it is all about perspective.
Sam: It always is! Lots of athletes train as much or even more than I do at intensities adapted to their ability. Veronique, a friend who often is my companion at races, is a very dedicated athlete and finished in 12h12 and she is over the moon with that result as it is simply outstanding. We inspire each other in our own way but respect and dedication is key. That is one of the great things about Ironman age group racing and a reason for the commercial success, and we should protect that with all means.
ST: Going into it, how did you feel?
Sam: It has been tough weeks juggling my job, my multi-timezone private life and training but I had a consistent race preparation. This year I started to work with a great team of trainers to address my core strength and flexibility issues. This really has improved my running, and I had hoped to run somewhere around 2h55 with my fingers in the nose (as a Dutch proverb says) but that didn’t happen. I was more uncertain of how the bike would feel since the race was only my second ride outdoors on a TT-bike (first ride was during a race in June) as I did all training indoors on the Kickr (with my powercranks of course). That didn’t seem to be an issue and I felt good on my bike. I just couldn’t get the intensity high enough on raceday.
ST: How many Kona spots were on the line and who all took them?
Sam: Lots of slots and I was happy to see some of my friends qualify and be able to go on a little vacation on that great Big Island. Frankfurt has 100 slots so plenty of happy people!
ST: I meant specifically in your age group.
Sam: I think there were 14 slots in our AG. Toni [Colom] grabbed his slot of course which looks like an act of masochism as he won’t be welcomed very warmly in Kona to put it nicely. I didn’t need a slot since I got mine already. Anyway, there is always that guy that just misses it and I am sure he wouldn’t feel so terribly happy if he knows about this situation. But same goes for the podium and the guys that now end up 2nd and 4th.
ST: Did you look at the start list before the race or is that something you don’t typically do?
Sam: I usually have a peak to see who will be there but that’s more from a social perspective. Of course, I was unhappy to see Colom on the start list but I don’t really consider guys like him as true competition – rather some poison that sneaks into our sports and takes away the joy of others. But it is what it is and I try not to focus too much on it. I am sure lots of pro women have the same feeling when they see Lisa Hütthaler on the start list and there are some other cases – I think you already wrote something about it earlier this year.
ST: Antonio Colom’s bike split was indeed impressive, and Alex Taubert a former Pro who now races age group commented on his Facebook page that Colom came by like a motorized vehicle. I guess you did not see him because he outswam you by 10 minutes or so.
Sam: True, although it is not really a huge accomplishment to outswim me by 10 minutes. Most people that randomly move their arms in the water swim faster than me.
ST: Well, my very best was 1:08
Sam: I knew we would have more in common apart from our European roots and a good sense of humor.
ST: Did you see Colom before, during or after the race at all?
Sam: I saw him on race morning and at the awards but just by coincidence. I am focused on my own race and try to enjoy these events. There is always a ton of nice people around so it would be a waste not to enjoy that positive atmosphere of likeminded people.
ST: Have you ever been accused of doping or other cheating actions just because you are fast?
Sam: Not to my face but I am sure that there are people who don’t know me who think that it is impossible for a tiny boy like me to be fast. There is also the yearly ‘Kona poor AG swimmer bike slingshot advantage’ thread on the ST forum. But people who know me have no doubts. I am a control freak regarding my training, my gear, my racing and my nutrition, and I am the same when it comes to medication – my general practitioner knows I perform in competition and that I will never use medication that is forbidden. Fortunately, I am blessed with a great health and rarely need any medication.
ST: Don’t you know most folks never accuse folks to their face.
Sam: I don’t care actually. Training is my only dope and I consume a lot of it. But I have never been aware of anybody accusing me of taking any illegal substances. I have been taking party drugs as a teenager and I am sure some people will recall that but my triathlon career started at age 27, which is more than 10 years after these little growing pains.
ST: When actually was the last time you were tested for doping? And how is that set up in Belgium?
Sam: I have only been tested once and that was in Kona in 2011. Although I rarely race in Belgium (it is filled with buildings, crappy roads and dirty waters), I know that drug testing is not happening a lot. The statistics are published on a government site. To give you an idea: in 2013, for triathlon 36 people were tested during competition, 24 were tested out of competition. For 2014, so far we have 0 people tested in competition (which makes sense since there are no events during the first quarter) and 12 out of competition. All of those test turned out to be negative.
ST: In our previous chat in 2011 you suggested that more age grouper doping tests need to take place - especially among qualifiers. How does it compare now to what was done then?
Sam: In 2011, I sometimes heard about people being tested on rare occasions but since then I feel that efforts have decreased even more. Testing is one thing, deciding how an organization should deal with people that tested positive is another issue. A lifetime ban would be a strong signal and WTC can make that decision if it cared.
ST: Your shirt you wore on the stage looks home made, so I assume that you did not travel to Frankfurt prepared. Was that something you did in your hotel room before the awards?
Sam: I was going to do it and had told some friends so, but it required me to be on the podium of course which you can never take for granted in a strong field. And as I said, before a race I focus on the event and as little possible on things that can take my focus away. I’d rather not have to make stupid shirts like that but on the other hand, it is a topic that lives with lots of athletes so I don’t mind using my status, for what is worth, to make that statement.
ST: Did you speak with the other podium finishers at all, and what did they say?
Sam: Sven Kunath suggested not shaking hands. He could read my feelings from my shirt and he was not very amused either so we were on the same page. I was happy about that. You never know how the public will react since you need to be aware of the circumstances to understand what’s happening. There was some whistling in the public when Colom was announced for the podium and I got tons of positive feedback so it appears my little action maybe got the ball rolling at least for a day or two.
ST: Any words or eye contact with Colom?
Sam: No, he said congratulations but I ignored him. Maybe he is a nice guy that I could enjoy training with… who knows. Lance also seemed to have been a great easy going guy. But that is not the point here.
ST: When his name was announced, you mentioned there was whistling, was that obvious or were most not interested, bored with that topic or oblivious?
Sam: There was whistling but to whistle you needed to know what was happening. There was a bunch of people there that were not happy to see that guy on that stage. Since I was focused on my little action at that moment, I might not be the most objective person to ask this question to though. However other people reported the whistling as well and some people came to me to take a picture or show appreciation for my action so I wouldn’t say that people weren’t interested or bored.
ST: Some folks will say about people who had been caught doping and have finished the ban that they should be able to go on in life. Because that is what the current set of rules are. So do we really need to work on the rules?
Sam: There is a difference between professionals and amateurs – for professionals, there is a framework set in place. It helps athletes who may have taken the wrong pill or used the medication of their dog, cow or horse or it prevents them doing so. If they are comfortable that after a ban they can return to the sport, then so be it, but at least it will be on the radar of anti-doping agencies. They race for money (be it only peanuts mostly) so it is another game.
But amateur racing is different. In amateur racing it would be easy to say someone who has been banned from professional sport for drug use is out, stop. No need to waste extra money on these people – if you prove you can’t race for fun or when you screwed things up in professional sports I don’t think you are in a position to spoil the game for the thousands of people who combine the pursuit of their amateur sports dream with families, fulltime jobs and other commitments.
Secondly, there is a difference from testing positive for a banned substance like a cold medication and being caught on EPO. EPO use is a deliberate act of cheating. It allows you to train at higher intensities and has the potential to create long lasting training effects. I think this should lead to a lifetime ban.
And finally there is also the importance of role models. I know lots of the top age-groupers personally and they usually are hardworking guys with a real life that other amateurs can identify themselves with. Most of these guys act as true ambassadors in their communities and beyond. Image is everything and WTC knows all about that. In this regard I can only hope that WTC also understands the value of the age-group athletes as role model and makes sure that the quote ‘Everybody is a winner’ doesn’t change in a sarcastic ‘Everybody is a cheater’ because that is the image you create if you want to capitalize on guys like LA (although racing as pro triathlete but notorious cheater), Jalabert, Colom etc. It is a very complex discussion but WTC is a private organization that can set its own rules. I made a little statement as a simple amateur athlete but it stirred up some emotions for sure. It is the age-group athletes that drive the success of LD triathlon though. We pay the bills and buy all that fancy gear and some make huge sacrifices to chase that Kona carrot, so I hope more people will step up for a clean and enjoyable racing experience!
ST: Yes, clean and enjoyable racing would be great. But WTC as a WADA signatory has to comply with their rule and starting soon the ban for doping will be up to 4 years. That might be fine in some cases, but in others it is clearly not enough. Maybe WADA is simply not in touch with the common man and the realities of the age group athletes who pay for the sport. But it is always easy to be an armchair quarterback.
Sam: In the past, IM Germany asked (professional) participants to sign an acknowledgment stating that they have never been involved and convicted in doping cases. It was at that time that ex-Deutsche Telekom road racer Kai Hundertmarck was denied access forever for that race. So there have been great (but local) initiatives in the past. My opinion (again, for what it is worth) is that people with a doping past should never be allowed in age group racing or at least not compete for a podium spot or a Kona slot – compare it with people that chose to swim with a wetsuit in a wetsuit illegal race.
WTC invented the AWA label. Likewise I can suggest introducing the ADA (all drugs athlete) label and provide a little unofficial ranking for those that like to make a fool of themselves. Not that this will solve everything but at least the message would be clear and it will keep the apples that are already rotten out of our precious basket.
ST: The message is clear indeed. Well, we wish you a great summer.
Sam: Thanks Herbert! Have a great summer as well and let’s talk about triathlon in a next interview! Focus on Kona starts now.