Friday, August 10, 2012, 8.55pm, London. Standing on the start line for the 1500m women’s Olympic final, Laura Weightman soaked up the atmosphere of what was the biggest moment of her career.
At 21, the talented middle-distance runner had made it to a final of her home Olympics – her first major championships – having run a then-personal best in the semi-final.
In front of 80,000 passionate fans, the Lesbury athlete finished 11th. It wasn’t to be the race that would define her, but it was one that she would hold dear and stand her in good stead for future medal-winning heroics.
But since that summer evening in the capital, that race has been thrust into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, with the news that five of the top nine finishers have subsequently faced performance-enhancing drug allegations.
It leaves a bitter-sweet taste in Weightman’s mouth.
Yes, she still holds treasured memories of competing in an Olympic final – and so she should – but she admits that she finds it hard to come to terms with the fact that some of the athletes in that field have since cast a shadow over her beloved sport.
And she believes drug cheats must be banned for life.
In an interview with the Gazette earlier this week, on her return from a block of warm-weather training in Portugal, Weightman, who is now 24, said: “Looking back to London, I was a young, naive 21-year-old who had worked so hard to be at my first Olympics, yet there were others in that final who have disrespected the sport and it is upsetting.
“I honestly think that drug cheats should be banned for life. If you have cheated and disrespected your sport and the fans, why should you be allowed to come back?”
Among the villains in that 2012 cast list was Turkey’s Asli Cakir Alptekin, who won the final, but has since been stripped of the gold medal and banned for eight years for doping.
Recently, her compatriot Gamze Bulut, who took the silver, was provisionally suspended pending an IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) investigation into a possible doping violation. Turkey’s NTV television had reported that abnormalities were found in Bulut’s blood samples from 2011, 2012 and 2013.
Nataliya Kareiva, of Belarus, and Russian athlete Yekaterina Kostetskaya, who finished seventh and ninth respectively, have since been banned by the IAAF for biological passport abnormalities. Their London results are now void.
Meanwhile, Ethiopia-born Swede Abeba Aregawi, who finished fifth in London, has been suspended after it emerged she tested positive for meldonium earlier this year and she faces a ban.
Then there was fourth-placed athlete Tatyana Tomashova, who had served a two-year suspension long before London 2012 for manipulating drug samples.
Weightman admits it is not a good outcome, but believes the sport is being cleaned up.
She said: “As much as it is bad publicity and it doesn’t cast a good light on my event, I think it can only be a positive thing, because it shows that the cheats will get caught and that will make it a more level playing field. I think the IAAF have work to do and I think there is a long way to go, but the main thing is that people are getting exposed and they aren’t getting away with it and that’s the only way that you can move forward, although it won’t be easy.
“All I can do as an athlete is work clean and show the world that I can do it clean. If that means I come last, it doesn’t matter, as long as I know I have raced clean.”
Weightman certainly prides herself on her work ethic and it’s this dedication and commitment that has seen her rise through the ranks, winning Commonwealth silver and European bronze in 2014. But for all the highs, there have also been devastating lows – with her disappointing early exit from last year’s World Championships in Beijing a case in point. She was forced to pull out at the semi-final stage after falling face-first onto the track at the end of her heat the day before and suffering concussion. It was a heartbreaking moment and one which took its toll on her.
She said: “It was really tough after Beijing. It is really hard to describe to anyone how something like that affects you, physically and mentally. It wasn’t just the damage that severe concussion has on your body – I wasn’t allowed to run for six weeks. I had to take a lot of rest, I have still got neurological issues after the fall. It has opened my eyes to concussion and the consequences it can have.
“Then there is the emotional side. I had worked so hard all year to be ready for the Worlds. Admittedly it had been a difficult season, with ups and downs, but at that moment I was in the best shape of my life and then, in one split second, it is taken away from you.”
Weightman is coached by track legend Steve Cram and she says that his support, as well as the help from the rest of her team, helped her get through those dark days after Beijing. “It took a long time to recover, but I will be better for it,” she added.
But Weightman is a fighter and the blow of Beijing has made her even more determined to fulfil her huge potential on the global stage. This year’s Olympics in Brazil would be the perfect stage to do just that. She said: “It is a massive season. Olympic qualification is the goal and then I would like to perform well in Rio. I am desperate to make up for the disappointment in Beijing and show what I can do.”
Weightman is gearing up for block of altitude training in France. She is eyeing the Diamond League meeting in Eugene at the end of May for her first 1500m track race of the season. And with Weightman in determined form, what a season it could prove to be.