Editor’s Note: The following piece contains descriptions of suicidal thoughts. If you are in the US and you or a loved one have contemplated suicide, call The National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to connect with a trained counselor.
For support outside of the US, a worldwide directory of resources and international hotlines is provided by the International Association for Suicide Prevention. You can also turn to Befrienders Worldwide.
New Zealand runner Zane Robertson says he “made some bad decisions in a really dark place” which led to his lengthy ban from the sport for doping, disclosing that the verdict has left him feeling suicidal.
Olympic distance runner Robertson was banned for a total of eight years – four years for a positive test and a further four-year ban after the Sports Tribunal of New Zealand ruled on Wednesday that he had “sought to subvert the doping control process.” The decision backdated his suspension beginning September 2022 from any “competition or activity (organized), sanctioned, or (authorized) by Athletics New Zealand or by any other sporting organization that is a signatory” to the country’s Sports Anti-Doping Rules (SADR).
Robertson – the New Zealand record holder in the marathon, half marathon and road 10km – tested positive for erythropoietin, commonly known as EPO, at a race in Manchester, England, last May.
EPO is a hormone naturally produced in the kidneys which controls the formation of red blood cells. When administered to athletes, it can increase the amount of oxygen delivered to muscles, improving recovery and endurance.
Speaking on the ‘Runners Only!’ podcast with Dom Harvey, the 33-year-old explained that there were many reasons for making the decisions he made, calling Wednesday’s judgment a “depressing, devastating day.”
“I hate it so much and it’s just a one-off hit, and I got caught. It’s been building on me a few years. Frustration and anger at the sport itself,” Robertson said.
“In any elite sport, I believe the top is not a level playing field like they say. I started to ask myself this question: ‘Why do people like myself always have to be the ones to lose or suffer, and in the end lose our contracts, lose our income, lose our race winnings and eventually end up not having the ability to have a family or live anywhere else in the world in the predicaments we’re in?’”
Robertson said that a drop in prize money and contracts amid Covid, as well as a “nasty” divorce, placed increased stress on him.
“After the Olympics, I was told by one of my companies: ‘We thought you would run better,’ and immediately exit from the deal. The other company was holding on for the bare minimum. I had pressure from my management. I was constantly getting injured in the race shoes I was trying to develop. Nothing was seeming to go my way.”
He added: “A lot of stress was placed on me and I made some bad decisions in a really dark place.”
Robertson said he took full responsibility for the attempted cover up of his failed drug test, saying that even with a four-year ban, he felt like his career was over.
According to the tribunal judgment, Robertson claimed as part of his defense that he had attended a medical facility in Kenya to get a Covid-19 vaccine; instead, though, he said he was treated for Covid-19, which he claimed involved the administration of EPO.
He provided sworn affidavits from Kenyan doctors, hospital notes, a hospital report and a witness statement from a Kenyan detective to support his claims, arguing that there was “no fault or negligence” on his part.
However, Drug Free Sport New Zealand (DFSNZ), the party opposing Robertson during the tribunal, highlighted the “clinical implausibility” of the treatment the athlete said he received.
Robertson spoke of his depression before the ban and his mental health struggles he has suffered since the verdict.
“When I got depressed, I started talking to a psychiatrist in the high-performance sports system. And he helped me through a lot of things,” he said. “I wanted to die, I didn’t want to live anymore.
“And I didn’t know why I was doing the sport anymore. And I think that would have been just the right time to maybe try and find something else to do and retire. Unfortunately, we don’t always make the right decisions. And sadly, as a professional athlete, we’re always really in the public eye and just judged for these decisions and mistakes that we make, and then called out for them in horrible ways. So I’m trying to deal with this in the best way possible right now.”
When asked about his headspace, Robertson said: “Not good to be honest. Today was one of my worst days. If I’m going to be totally honest, coming home from my brother’s place today, I just wanted to go and shoot myself in the head.”
Robertson’s twin brother, Jake, is a professional runner who has competed at the Commonwealth Games alongside Zane.
Robertson said that his brother was “a little bit pissed off,” while also expressing his concern that his ban would affect his brother’s chances.
“It’s very unfair. I mean, if one student in the classroom cheats, are they all cheating? Just because they’re all in that same classroom. It’s bullsh*t. And people want to do that to him. And they’ve already started posting on his wall today and it’s horrible, man. It’s just terrible.”
Robertson explained that although he didn’t use EPO for long enough to feel the full benefits, it made him “move and train in great shape.” He said he decided to try EPO because he kept getting his “a*s handed” to him.
He also apologized to his fans.
When asked what he’d like to be remembered for, Robertson said: “Not just for running fast or not just for running records or anything like that – just for kind of having a dream and giving it a real shot, giving it a go, and giving it 100% despite everyone telling us that you can’t do this, it isn’t possible. That’s what I’d like to be remembered for.”