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Why It’s Harder to Fight Doping in Paralympic Sport (with Ali Jawad)

Today we’re talking to Ali Jawad, a British Paralympic powerlifter and silver medalist from the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games. Ali was born a double above the knee amputee, and he competed in judo at a high level before finding powerlifting. Ali is one of Britain’s most accomplished strength athletes, and he’s also an outspoken advocate for clean sport and doping controls in Paralympic sport. In our conversation, we talk about how Ali is blending academia and strength sports, why doping controls are more difficult in Paralympic sports, as well as the the challenges Ali faces training with Crohn’s disease.

Ali Jawad

On this episode of The BarBend Podcast, host David Thomas Tao talks to Ali Jawad about:

  • Ali’s bodyweight and competition bench press (2:27)
  • Navigating training with Crohn’s disease (5:15)
  • Longevity in strength sports (9:30)
  • Ali’s passion for anti-doping and doping control, including his work toward a PhD (13:32)
  • “Boosting” in Paralympic sport (16:34)
  • How long it takes to enable change in international sport (21:15)
  • Ways Paralympic powerlifting can grow and evolve (25:40)

Relevant links and further reading:

Transcription

Ali JawadAli Jawad

I think for me, as an athlete, it’s probably important that you compete for as long as possible because when it’s over, it’s over. You can’t come back.

David TaoDavid Tao

Welcome to the “BarBend Podcast,” where we talk to the smartest athletes, coaches, and minds from around the world of strength. I’m your host, David Thomas Tao, and this podcast is presented by barbend.com.

 

Today, I’m talking to Ali Jawad, a British Paralympic powerlifter and silver medalist from the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games. Ali was born a double above the knee amputee, and he competed in Judo at a high level before finding powerlifting. He’s one of Britain’s most accomplished strength athletes. He’s also an outspoken advocate for clean sport and doping controls in Paralympic sports.

 

In our conversation, we talked about how Ali is blending academia and strength sports, why doping controls are more difficult in Paralympic sports, as well as the challenges he faces training with Crohn’s disease.

 

Also, we’re incredibly thankful that you listen to this podcast. If you haven’t already, please be sure to leave a rating and review of the BarBend Podcast in your app of choice. Now, let’s get to it.

 

Thanks so much for joining us today. I have to ask because I asked this a lot of athletes during this time. How has training been during the pandemic for you?

Ali JawadAli Jawad

To be very honest, really good. I think I smashed it. I’ve been quite lucky that the isolation period, I was consistent. It made me control all the variables. Because of that, that allowed me to make good decisions and obviously making sure that I was in constant contact as a coach as well.

 

Because when we control the variables, you’ve got a very good shot at succeeding. I can get a lot done. I’ve done pretty well. Now, that foundation has given me…I’m in better shape now than I was before lockdown. [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

That’s fantastic news and clearly something that takes a lot of effort. A lot of folks, maybe not the elite athletes have treated lockdown as a period away from training but not an option for you. For people who might not be familiar with your career, what body weight are you generally competing at, and what is your competition best right now in the bench press?

Ali JawadAli Jawad

People will know me at 59-kilo class. In competition, I’ve done 195-kilo at 59. In the gym, I’ve done over 200 a few times, but it doesn’t count in the gym obviously.

 

I have to put it out that I have benched 200 kilo. I was about 55-kilo body weight when I did it. I’ve got videos to prove it. If you want to challenge me, I’ve got those videos.

 

Now, because of Crohn’s and my health, I’m back down to fit 54. It’s been a quiet tough time since the real part of the game. I’ll be competing potentially at lighter body weight now because of my health.

David TaoDavid Tao

It seems like you’re in good shape now. It seems like training’s been going well now. What kind of training schedule have you had over the last few months?

Ali JawadAli Jawad

Obviously, during lockdown, I’ve converted my living room into a gym. I’m bench pressing all the weights, all the electroplates, and bars and everything.

David TaoDavid Tao

Well, you were able to get equipment. That’s step number one.

Ali JawadAli Jawad

I was lucky that I was very well-supported. Now coming out of isolation, I’m back to my schedule. I’m in the gym five times a week, probably average between 10 and 15 hours a week in the gym and obviously making sure that I’m robust enough to recover from what I’m doing.

 

It doesn’t stop in the gym. As any athlete, 24/7, you have to make sure that you’re recovering, resting, and making sure that your body is all right to train.

David TaoDavid Tao

What kind of volume and intensity are you working with when you go in?

Ali JawadAli Jawad

This is where it gets a little bit complicated.

 

Because of my health and the medication that I’m on, the side effects is extreme fatigue. The way the medication affects my muscle tissue and my tendons. It means I’m more susceptible to tears without even trying.

 

What we do now is we use RPE quite a lot. We have an objective measure. I use a device for general wear because, obviously, you can’t trust somebody’s perception. Sometimes people, when it comes to ego, they want to push the boundaries.

 

A true reflection is that we have an objective measure, and we use that every session. I have to make sure that I’m in two reps in reserve every single time. I’m not going anywhere near failure so I don’t hurt myself. What we do is we focus on speed. If I’m getting quicker, we know that I’m improving. I use a different way of training rather than pushing the boundaries.

David TaoDavid Tao

That’s interesting. If you don’t mind, give folks a little perspective on some of the medical issues you might have to navigate around with training.

 

On this podcast, we’ve talked to elite athletes who are type 1 diabetics, people who are working with a lot of different things that basically have to modify how they approach training. Not that they can’t be elite in the top level, but I’m very curious as to how that’s impacted your athletic career.

Ali JawadAli Jawad

I’ve got Crohn’s disease. Unfortunately, with Crohn’s — don’t know if you’ve got the side effect or symptoms — the medication itself that you take for some symptoms, they’re very toxic to the body. The medication I’m on now, it makes my body in a catabolic environment, and you don’t want that for muscle growth at all.

David TaoDavid Tao

That’s a dirty word in the sport’s community.

Ali JawadAli Jawad

It’s my job to make sure that I know my body, how I feel, and I know that the medication will try and deceive me. It wants me to push the boundaries. It does want to hurt me because in a catabolic state, you’re breaking muscle tissue down just by doing nothing. When you’re training, we know there’s micro-tears in training. That’s a double hit for me.

 

For me to recover, it takes me two, three times the recovery time than somebody that’s healthy. We need to be able to navigate through that and make sure that we’re using objective measures to make sure that we’re making the right informed choice.

 

In the past, we’ve tried to push the boundaries of how I used to train when I was healthy, and I broke down after eight weeks. I used to break down after every eight weeks. We needed a way to measure my fatigue on a daily basis but also made sure that we’re not training at very high intensities. My pecks just can’t handle it anymore, and my tendons are broken. We have to find another way.

 

It’s a way that not many strength athletes should use. For me, it’s probably the only way to get there and make sure that I’m one, healthy and, two, not injured. I think if I go back to the old Ali Jawad where I used to be very, very good, I’d break down probably every week and not be able to come back from it.

David TaoDavid Tao

I think you’re still very, very good. You’re just in a more refined older package. Those are some fairly significant measures as far as tempering your training intensity and recovery. Of course, no one can train the same way for the entirety of their athletic career.

 

The body changes. Recovery, it simply declines with age. When you’re in this catabolic state — and obviously I’m not an expert on Crohn’s disease. A little disclaimer on this podcast, I don’t think either of us are doctors…

Ali JawadAli Jawad

Not a doctor, just my experience. I’m lucky that I’ve got a world-class team around me. I’ve got great resources where I can learn as well. That’s what it is. I’ve got great team around me that helped me.

David TaoDavid Tao

How does this impact your nutrition and your nutritional timing? The medication puts you in this catabolic state. I’m curious how that might impact how you’re refueling.

Ali JawadAli Jawad

The body weight’s poor. You need to be able to make sure that your calories are sufficient enough so you’ve got the energy to recover. We’ve focused on energy availability. For me, being quite fatigued all the time by doing nothing, it’s important I have enough energy to get through the session, recover, and do it again.

 

That’s how you get a strong weight consistency. My nutrition is really strict. We know that food triggers my symptoms. We need to make sure that everything I put in my body is good for my body, to not only tackle my health.

 

That’s the foundation. It’s health first, then performance. After that, we focus on the performance side of it. I weigh all my food. Protein’s really high. I can manipulate the other macros to suite my higher-intensity days and my lesser-intensity days. I’m very regimental when it comes to nutrition and making sure that I recover.

David TaoDavid Tao

How long have you been in the sport of Paralympic powerlifting?

Ali JawadAli Jawad

I’m 31 now. I started when I was 16.

David TaoDavid Tao

You started really young.

Ali JawadAli Jawad

[inaudible 9:43] Paralympic Games later. I’m still here [inaudible 9:46] .

David TaoDavid Tao

This is a sport where we’ve seen athletes have a quite a bit of longevity if they take care of themselves. Do you have a goal in mind? Do you have a set number like, “I want to compete in this many Paralympic Games, or I want to have a career that’s this long”?

Ali JawadAli Jawad

For me, as an athlete, it’s probably important that you compete for as long as possible, because when it’s over, it’s over. You can’t come back. It’s very hard to make a comeback after you’ve retired.

David TaoDavid Tao

Especially in strength sports.

Ali JawadAli Jawad

Exactly. As long as my health holds out, I’m hoping that I can get as many as I can. After that, I’ll decide, whether or not, if I’m competitive enough to carry on. For me, it’s all about being competitive. At the highest that you reach sometimes, you always compare yourself.

 

I don’t want to get to the games and come 10th or 11th. I want to be able to be fine for some sort of medal. If I can’t get to that level, then I’ll probably walk away.

David TaoDavid Tao

How does the sport change, if at all, over your now 15-year career?

Ali JawadAli Jawad

When I first started, it was considered an old-person sport because it takes a lot to get really strong. You never had juniors that were truly world class against the senior guys. I was lucky enough at 19, as a junior, benching 190. I used to compete against these top guys.

 

Now, you’re getting a lot of juniors challenging the big seniors. It’s not really a old-person sport anymore. To me, you’re getting people from 19 all the way to probably 25, 26, who are absolutely incredible. The senior guys are struggling to keep up. I’m struggling to keep up now. [laughs]

 

As well as the opportunities, we’ve been given in terms of competing. We’ve got loads of World Cup events every year. You get to test yourself against the very, very best in the world on a consistent basis. When I was younger, it was probably the major championships that you look for. Now, every competition is quite important.

David TaoDavid Tao

Pandemic notwithstanding, how many times a year are you aiming to compete? One thing I’ve heard our folks is to get further along in their careers and, as they get more elite, will compete less often.

 

That’s not always the case. I don’t want to just make a blanket statement. Some people just love competing. What kind of competition frequency and peaking cycle frequency are you focused on?

Ali JawadAli Jawad

Everything’s about the Paralympic Games, right? Certainly, for years. For us, the World Championships are as important, probably harder to win because then sheer numbers. You got the regional championship.

 

For us, the European Championships. Then you’ve got the Commonwealth Games for us, which is quite important. I always say to juniors, “Compete as much as you can because then experiences are great for you.”

 

Also, when you get to the very top levels, when you have to cast this off a little bit more, then probably focus on the majors and use the World Cup events just to try few things they’ve not tried before. Who can afford to do that?

 

For me, for example, beings are injury prone and sick all the time. For now, I rarely compete. [laughs] It depends. For me, when you get older, you compete less in my experience anyway.

David TaoDavid Tao

That’s an insight into how your career on the platform has evolved over the last 15 years. I know you’re very much busy in parts of the sport and aspects of sporting – I guess we could say — off the platform.

 

Let’s talk about some of those things that you’re really passionate about, throw a lot of effort behind, even outside of competing yourself.

Ali JawadAli Jawad

Outside of competing, I’m quite vocal on a lot of topics in the sport. I’m currently studying a PhD in anti-doping in Paralympic sport. I’ve always felt that there’s a huge gap between anti-doping at the Paralympic Games and the Olympics.

 

I want to bridge it. There’s a few gaps where I want to address and hopefully lead to policy change in the future and also sit on the UK Anti-Doping Athlete Commission so I’ve got a big voice to represent people in the UK.

 

At the same time, I’m quite passionate about recreation exercise with disability. I’m currently developing a platform that could transform the way disabled people access exercise, which we’ll launch next year.

 

I’ve been very busy during lockdown, trying to create that and making sure that’s ongoing for now. The PhD is a big one for me because that could lead to huge policy changes in the future, or it’ll definitely make the system think about how anti-doping is governed at the world level.

David TaoDavid Tao

What are some policy changes that you could see yourself advocating for at the international level when it comes to anti-doping?

Ali JawadAli Jawad

A few things. In Paralympic sport, there’s more ways to potentially cheat. We’re not talking about the substance doping. We’re talking about intentional misrepresentation of somebody’s disability. Over-exaggerating your disability to get into a favorable class increase your medal chances.

 

I feel that should be in the World Anti-Doping Code as an anti-doping violation. Also, there’s a method called boosting. Spinal cord athletes should be very familiar with boosting. It’s definitely concerning because it does put the athlete health at risk but also increases their performance.

 

I’d want that as a banned method like blood doping into the code for not their massive return. If that can’t happen, I feel like potentially, there should be an integrity organization that manages the dimensions of doping rather than just a substance-regulated like WADA that only deals of substances.

 

I feel integrity has a big issue in sport now. Sports should move with the times. It’s not about just doping anymore. It’s about all the other methods of cheating. Cheating comes under integrity. That’s what I’m looking into.

David TaoDavid Tao

We see that in the world of cycling. As an example, equipment, not being a level-playing field, people hiding motors in wheels and in road bikes. It gets pretty complex technologically.

 

You mentioned boosting as a potential method of performance enhancement that you would consider outside the realm of what should be allowed in sport. What is boosting for those who might not be familiar with it?

Ali JawadAli Jawad

Spinal cord athletes will be familiar with this. Basically, there’s an element of self-harm to increase your blood pressure. That gives you a performance benefit, simply. Unfortunately, there’s a performance benefit in middle-distance wheelchair races, for example, and wheelchair rugby.

 

However, the side effects of that is you can get headaches, seizures, and it’s really, really bad for your health as well. It takes a lot of the criteria to be involved in the WADA code. It is against the spirit of sport. It has a performance benefit. It’s definitely against the athletes’ health.

 

There’s a risk to that. Right now, it’s not in the code. I see it as blood boosting. Blood doping is pretty much a similar method just in a different way.

David TaoDavid Tao

What methods would athletes use for boosting? Is it chemical? Is it physical? What’s the actual mechanism?

Ali JawadAli Jawad

No, it’s physical. It’s a physical element. Sometimes, you self-harm because you can’t feel it. You’re hurting yourself. That part…

David TaoDavid Tao

It creates a neurological reaction to increase your blood pressure. An athlete in a limber part of the body where they don’t have sensation, it could be them, stabbing, cutting, pricking.

Ali JawadAli Jawad

It’s a method that imperative to explore. There’s a potential prevalence. There’s potential there to cheat. As thought, I think it needs to be addressed way more. There’s only been a handful of studies ever. I think for me that it needs to be looked at again to protect athletes.

David TaoDavid Tao

We don’t have any idea of the prevalence of that. You talk about how it’s dangerous to the athlete. It is quite literally self-harm. Other things could occur. Infections could occur as a result of these sorts of things. Do we have any idea how prevalent boosting might be at the Paralympic level?

Ali JawadAli Jawad

No. There’s 24 percent in one study potentially.

David TaoDavid Tao

24 percent?

Ali JawadAli Jawad

23 percent? But no athletes ever tested positive for that method. Ever. I think that’s why it’s not the code. There’s no data to back it up. We know that WADA only catch 1 or 2 percent a year, but we know that the prevalence of doping in sport in general is between 15 to 30 percent.

 

That’s the prevalence studies out there at the moment. Just because nobody’s ever tested positive, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. We just have to keep looking into it and making sure that the systems are robust enough.

 

I do feel sorry for the Paralympic games because it’s really hard to test for it. I think it has to be done on intelligence as well. You have to test for it 10 minutes before they compete. Imagine testing for it before you can be. The protocols need to be looked at again, but I do have sympathy with the system because it’s really hard to test.

David TaoDavid Tao

It’s certainly a unique challenge presented by Paralympic sport?

Ali JawadAli Jawad

Yeah, it definitely is.

David TaoDavid Tao

You’re working on your PhD in doping and Paralympic sport. Are there any existing active PhDs in doping and Paralympic sport, or will you be potentially the first?

Ali JawadAli Jawad

There’s been quite a lot and looking at the classification system, how it works, looking at also the different forms of potential cheating in the Paralympic games that this one is going to be, I’m hoping, the most athlete lead data we’ve ever had at that top level when it comes to prevalence. I’m hoping that’s what data might educate the system about.

 

We might have a problem, and we need to tackle it in this way because athletes want to explore how we can make it better for them in terms of protecting them. I’m hoping we get a lot of policy. I really think it comes from how it’s done.

David TaoDavid Tao

Obviously, these things take time.

Ali JawadAli Jawad

Oh, yes, it’s going to take years. [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

You don’t start a PhD if you have a short-attention span, because that takes years but in acting policy change at this level. We’re talking potentially several Paralympic cycles here that this could take.

Ali JawadAli Jawad

At the evidence based, I think it’s going to take two or three cycles, which should be 8 to 12 years. We have to make sure the data is reliable. Can we actually create further studies down the line as that is the foundation? There’s a lot to think about what studies, so it’s going to take years.

 

To be honest, I feel sorry for the organizations that decide how do you implement? I’m looking at the research and again are difficult to implement strategy and I tried to do. I’ve got total sympathy with the system, but also we need to make sure that athletes are safe and protected.

David TaoDavid Tao

 

Clearly, with that timeframe in mind, you’re looking at being heavily involved in this and an advocate potentially beyond your athletic career.

Ali JawadAli Jawad

For me ideally, I’d like to work in the sport on the on the governance side, especially with integrity and anti-doping in the future. For me, I’d love to work for the IPC eventually. They do great work. The way it’s grown over the last, especially in my lifetime, has been incredible.

 

Without the Paralympic Games, I wouldn’t be the person that I am. At the same time, we to make sure that athletes are protected too. To me, we’re going up about the right way looking at evidence based structures to inform our decisions.

David TaoDavid Tao

Who are some athletes? I want to change it a little bit. I really appreciate that explanation. Another line of questioning that might be a little bit more fun for some people, not this isn’t fun and interesting.

 

Who are some people in strength athletics, it could be in the sport Paralympic powerlifting? It could be a different Paralympic sport. Well let’s keep it at strength athletics. Who in strength athletics do you really admire these days? It could be in your own sport or another.

Ali JawadAli Jawad

Sherif Osman. I think for me.

David TaoDavid Tao

 

You’re not the first person to say that when I talk about admired strength athletes. [laughs]

Ali JawadAli Jawad
David TaoDavid Tao

 

I’ve been fortunate enough to talk with Sherif once. At the beginning of COVID, we had a short interview in profile of him on BarBend. First off, he’s a super nice guy.

Ali JawadAli Jawad

[inaudible 24:38] , so unfair.

David TaoDavid Tao

He’s got [laughs] charisma coming out of his gills, and he’s still the best. He’s been the best for a long time. He’s still at that tippy, top level. We’re talking 16 years later.

Ali JawadAli Jawad

He’s been an opponent on Paralympic games, which is incredible because the standard we compete at, it’s very hard to be on being for that long. [inaudible 25:03, I’m being since 2007, is ridiculous.

 

The thing is now is he has got younger guys coming up against him now that are pushing that 200-kilo boundary. He needs to be at his very best now to win it well before even if his first lift and starts trying to stuff on top of his stance. I’m looking in and thinking, “No, I just can’t compete here. I want to go home.” [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

We have talked about anti-doping efforts you would like to see implemented. Where do you think the sport has some room to evolve, potentially grow? That could be for the procedures of the sport, how it’s contested, or potentially certain communities, groups, countries that you think are very much up and coming.

Ali JawadAli Jawad

For me, Para Powerlifting have definitely done incredible work the last, probably, two cycles in terms of developing the sport app in lesser nations, because we’ve got a lot of people competing now. The challenges for them now is to make it a true spectator sport because we know it’s a subjective sport.

 

We know that sometimes referees don’t agree with each other. Sometimes, the audience doesn’t understand what’s going on. “Why is it a red light?” I think that for me is a big challenge. How can we still sell our sport make it even bigger on a global level?

 

If you look at the IPF rules, they’re not strict. You get more lifts on percentages, more when it comes the percentage. When it comes to Paralympic games, it’s really, really strict. We have to get a lift. I don’t think that’s really for spectators when they’re there to watch big lifts. They don’t understand.

 

Even there’s a color system in place now, so you know you’ve done wrong. It needs to be aware where you can make it grow on a public level. As athletes, we know what we’ve done wrong. When you’re watching it and you don’t really know, “Oh, what’s happened?” It’s good that we’ve got a color system in place, but we need to do a little bit more to really grow it.

David TaoDavid Tao

 

I talked to able-bodied powerlifters about…Strength athletes are great about complaining about judging. It doesn’t matter who you are.

Ali JawadAli Jawad

 

I’m number one, by the way. [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

It could be weightlifting, Para-powerlifting. It could be CrossFit. Everyone can find something to complain about with judging. This is not to attack judges because they have a very tough job. There’s a lot that goes into it.

 

I’ve talked to some able-bodied powerlifters who complain about, “The standard was too strict. I don’t know why I got red lighted for that lift.” I was like, “Look, try doing this to Paralympic standards on the bench press.”

Ali JawadAli Jawad

We don’t mind the strictness. Just the consistency of that strictness, that’s all it is. It’s just like, “You want us to be here fine, but we also want you to be here.” As athletes, we want referees to referee at the same level every body weight class.

 

We don’t want to have one body weight class which is strict, and the other one which is quite lenient. We don’t mind the strictness, because bench press is about optimal technique with strength. That makes it a little more even playing field rather than just ask somebody that’s brusque and fit.

 

We need to make sure that the referees are consistently implementing strictness and not holding back on some classes. Historically, unfortunately, referee’s got varying opinions. That’s why it’s subjective. That needs to potentially get a little bit better. They’d been better for me since London 2012. They’ve been a lot better. They’ve been a lot better.

David TaoDavid Tao

 

Where’s the best place for folks to keep up to date with the work you’re doing? It could be on the platform competing. It could be the efforts you’re building, researching even away from the competition floor.

Ali JawadAli Jawad

You can just follow my social media. On Instagram, I’m @alijawadpowerlifter. On Twitter, I’m @alijawad12. On Twitter, it’s more like anti-doping-related, where on my Instagram page, you can see some training, my love of sport in general. I’m a massive Liverpool FC fan, so I’m quite happy right now.

 

 You get to see a different side of me on different platforms.

David TaoDavid Tao

 

Excellent. Thank you so much for joining us. Fantastic to hear about the work you’re doing and specifically the research you are in many ways spearheading.

That side of anti-doping efforts is something that we haven’t been able to explore in the podcast before. I really appreciate your time.

Ali JawadAli Jawad

 

Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

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