Eilish McColgan, British Olympic steeplechaser, chronicles her experiences as an athlete ambassador at the Play True 2020 Athlete Forum in Tokyo, Japan, and gives an athlete’s perspective on the importance of clean sport.
Returning to Tokyo has always been on my wish list. 23 years ago I visited Japan with my parents to ‘watch’ them compete in the 1991 World Championships. I use the term ‘watch’ very loosely, as I was only one at the time and have no recollection of the trip! Tokyo has always held a special place in my heart, as it’s where my mum won her first global title on the track – she took gold in the 10,000m. I’ve watched videos of her winning online but to be given the opportunity to go out and visit where it happened, was something I wasn’t going to miss.
I attended the Play True 2020 Athlete Forum, as an ambassador for clean sport on behalf of UK Anti-Doping and the two-day conference was a brilliant experience. As a kid, I was always very shy and would often hide whenever we had to do the dreaded task of talking in front of the class! I would never have imagined myself, talking on an athlete panel for an hour through simultaneous translators, in front of hundreds of people I’ve never met before. It was definitely an experience I won’t forget! Sport has educated me in a way I never thought it would. It has built my confidence, my mental strength and my ability to take on anything I set my mind to.
Day One consisted of the Athlete Conference where I joined the athlete panel alongside three former Olympians: Koji Murofushi, Claudia Bokel and Ben Sandford. We were asked to answer questions on a range of topics but mainly what we believed were the true values of sport.
One of the questions we were asked was, “what does sport mean to you?”. This may sound simple, but the answer is far more complex. Sport to me is a way of life. It’s an escape from the real word, where I can be completely in control and somewhere I can chose how fast or slow to run.
For me, success isn’t defined by winning medals or titles – it’s personal achievement. Of course I want to win but it runs much deeper than that. As a youngster, I did sport because I loved it and for the pure enjoyment that it created. There were no stresses and no pressures.
As a kid you are naïve. You believe everything is equal and fair but unfortunately that is not always the case. A minority of people act unfairly, fast tracking their way to success by doping. Tokyo 2020 have set markers in place for true play amongst its competitors with an outlook towards the next generation and this forum was only a small percentage of the hard work that is going on behind the scenes.
The second day consisted of the Young Athlete Workshop in which we took part in ‘New! Mo!’ – a simpler version of the traditional Japanese sport sumo. The session was designed to encourage young athletes to make the playing field fair. It was a brilliant idea and the kids all thoroughly enjoyed it. Each team was given a different scenario; an individual in a wheelchair, a visually-impaired individual and an individual with one arm. They were encouraged to think of how they could make the game fair for all. It was a clever way of reinforcing to the children that sport needs to be fair, regardless of an individual’s situation.
If there’s one thing I’m certain of, it’s that sport is a roller coaster. My mum always told me there would be more lows than there were highs – but those high moments become so special that you forget the troubles it took to achieve them. Winning is never easy and it’s made much harder by those choosing to take the easy route. Knowing every ounce of your blood, sweat and tears has finally paid off gives you the greatest satisfaction of all. I would rather lose outright knowing I just wasn’t good enough than win in the wrong way.
Sport cements values in us: honesty, integrity, humility, courage and ambition. My character has been built through sport and although it’s brought me some of my happiest memories, it’s equally brought me my worst. However, there is no question that it has made me a stronger and better person for it.
I recently read a book which had a quote that resonated with me: “better people make better athletes”. Real champions are defined by going that extra mile in order to reach for success but they also hold high moral values and are well-rounded individuals. Withstanding your truths can become challenging in times of difficulty but with the right support team, the right education and the skills to overcome those adversities – impossible is nothing but a word in the dictionary. I have absolutely no doubt that sport is heading in the right direction. We need to continue to educate and inspire the next generation to make the right choices, leaving the sport in a better place than we found it.
On a global scale there are definitely changes that need to be made. Testing needs to be consistent across all nations in order to create fairness and a level playing field for all. However, due to financial restrictions, some countries don’t undergo the same rigorous testing procedures that we have in the UK – making it easier for people to beat the system. It’s never going to be perfect and unfortunately we will never be able to entirely eradicate doping but there are definitely improvements to be made to make sure everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet.
I hope I can play my part and even if I’ve planted one individual little seed into one inspiring athlete, then I will have done my job. Seeds grow with a little nurture and over the years they mature until they finally blossom. I’m doing my part, but it’s also down to them. A small seed was planted in my head after watching the 2000 Olympics, I wanted to be an Olympian like the majestic athletes I watched on TV. 15 years later, my journey is only beginning.
I would like to thank UK Anti-Doping for inviting me to attend this amazing conference and I’ve been hugely encouraged by the event. I would also like to thank the Japan Anti-Doping (JADA) for giving me such a warm welcome and treating me like royalty from the first moment I stepped off the plane. Fingers crossed we will all meet again at the pinnacle of our sport – the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
Eilish was appearing on behalf of UK athletes at the 2015 International Athlete Forum for 2020, which was co-hosted by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology and the Japan Anti-Doping Agency (JADA).