Doping culture in sport means no one is a winner

With calls for Russia to be banned from the 2016 Olympics over allegations of doping, Laura Frey examines a dark aspect of the pursuit of sporting greatness

SPORTFor athletics and athletes it is doping scandals rather than sporting achievements that have made the headlines this season. Although the season started promisingly, with the reintroduction of four year bans for first time offences (rather than the two years introduced in 1997),  this encouraging progress was to be quickly overshadowed.

Firstly, the BBC Panorama Documentary broadcast in June detailed all of the accusations against Alberto Salazar who is the head coach of the Nike Oregon project, consultant coach for UKAthletics, current coach of Mo Farah and ironically was a pacesetter for Lance Armstrong during his first ever marathon in 2006. The list of accusations is a long and varied one but key highlights include a legal supplement for 16 year old Galen Rupp that must have been “mistakenly labelled” as testosterone on his medical chart, as well as testing testosterone gels on his son to see how much could be applied before a positive result ensued, supposedly so they could protect themselves against possible saboteurs. Farah himself has repeatedly he will split from his coach if the accusations are proven, but in addition to two missed drug tests of his own he has given his critics and accusers a lot to talk about.

Next came the leaked testing data from German broadcaster ARD and the Sunday Times which claimed that a third of medals won between 2001 and 2012 at Olympic and World Championship level were won by athletes who had had suspicious test results in the past. Some athletes were strongly in favour for the release of all data, whereas others were more cautious.  The athletes erring on the side of caution suggested that the data could be misinterpreted without due context and could allow people who were trying to cheat to understand the best way to avoid being caught. Paula Radcliffe then ended up as the key figure in the firing line as she eventually released her data and a lengthy statement which reiterated her points about helping cheats and outlined how all three test results were after racing, training at altitude or after taking antibiotics. She stated that all three incidents had been fully investigated at the time and dismissed due to their context – indeed two of three blood samples were taken within two hours of racing – a practice that has now been abolished due to the variations in data this can cause.  As an athlete who herself once held up a sign in protest at the Edmonton World Championships saying “EPO cheats out” one would hope her claims are true.

Finally, the World Championship itself was riddled with scandal. Was it the negative press such as the two athletes from Kenya who were the first to be banned mid-competition or the men’s 100m final with four previously banned athletes rather than Ashton Eaton’s superb decathlon world record or Aries Merritt’s 110mH bronze medal days before his kidney transplant that more people will have read about? Sadly the answer is probably the former. Gatlin versus Bolt was built up in the media as good versus evil and the world rejoiced when Bolt proved unbeatable and had Gatlin crying in a corner that he had been demonised by the British media and he would never speak to them again. If your best defence is that a masseuse rubbed testosterone into your buttocks as sabotage, you need to accept that people won’t welcome you back to the track with open arms. Though Gatlin can credit himself with giving Salazar a great excuse for why he wasn’t trying to optimise the practice of microdosing – hardly an achievement to be proud of.

Currently suspicion is so rife that it has clouded the sport. Massive revelations regarding widespread doping in cycling over recent years have not helped either. Sebastian Coe, newly elected IAAF president has stated that tackling doping is a key part of his mission and he is already petitioning for an international independent system to take the costs and pressures of testing away from individual nations. In addition to this, he puts forward the argument that athletics is the leading sport in terms of testing and that many sports do relatively little testing in comparison – hence the more regular stories. Indeed it is true that the blood passport has been critical in identifying anomalies and catching the culprits but it is also worth noting that athletics is a sport in which doping can provide such a great advantage in terms of speed, power and endurance – the essence of every track and field discipline. The same can also be said with regards to swimming and cycling – but when considering other high profile sports such as football, rugby or tennis does it give you such a critical advantage? Unlikely.

The growing argument in favour of life bans is strong – a clamour supported by many high profile athletes such as Michael Johnson, and Ireland’s own European medallist Mark English. Significant research has indicated that the effects of powerful drugs such as anabolic steroids can be felt decades later. There are those that hold Justin Gatlin up as an example of this – an athlete who appears to be getting faster and faster at the age of 33. However, there are legal issues surrounding this idea as life time bans could be a breach of human rights. Some people are so fed up they are calling for a split in races – why not let people take whatever they like and see just exactly what the limits of the human body are? Let the truly clean athletes continue as they are, separately. However, I believe that this is a terrible suggestion – not only would it be dangerous and risky for the health of the athletes (one only needs to scratch the surface of the bodybuilding world) but it would also turn the sport into a farce regarding who has the best ‘supplier’.  In addition, it would not remotely level the playing field and what would stop the drugged athletes from still trying to infiltrate the clean races? The above suggestion solves nothing, rather it would just open a whole new can of worms.

It is truly sad when ex-international stars such as Darren Campbell have come out and said “I wouldn’t encourage my kids to do athletics, every time there’s an allegation of systematic doping, it is very difficult to keep believing in the sport.” Put simply – more needs to be done. Life time bans may not be legal – but what about twenty year ones? Rarely would an athlete’s career last longer than that. The prize money and appearance fees are supposed to be returned but too often get lost in legal battles or are simply not followed up on – this needs to be more consistently pursued. The multimillion sponsorship deals could be taken away too: if the big brands agreed to boycott banned athletes, a return to training would be much harder for them. The current system allows reduced bans for co-operative whistleblowers – a positive step to expose more perpetrators but should a quicker return to sport be their reward? Perhaps a reduced fine would be more suitable or a lesser criminal charge, as cheating to win money is a form of fraud and it might act as a better deterrent if treated as such.

Let us hope this disastrous year of press for athletics forces the IAAF to act and implement changes for the better. I firmly believe in a person’s right to innocence until proven guilty and disagree with the assumption that says high performance athletes must be doping. Sportspeople should not be under suspicion for possessing talent. For those who believed Lance Armstrong until the very moment he answered “yes” to Oprah, it would be difficult to take the prosecution of one’s sporting heroes as a doper well. However, the tighter the controls become, the cleaner the sport becomes and thus more people can return to enjoying, participating in and observing the greatest sports in the world.