How Dopers Have Become Sport's Untrustworthy Villans
by Daniel Rees
image courtesy of Getty Images
If athletics has faced any crisis on which its future will hinge, then it is unequivocally the use of performance-enhancing drugs by its athletes. In the tumultuous modern times of track and field athletics, hardly a year seems to go by without there being some sort of drugs scandal to scar what is already a seriously wounded sport. Fatally wounded? Not yet. But given the forthcoming retirement of athletics superstar Usain Bolt, and continued rise of the sport’s supervillain, Justin Gatlin, it would not be outrageous to suggest that athletics is teetering precariously on the brink of becoming a sport that is ruled by antagonists and anti-heroes.
Performance-enhancing drugs are hardly a novel issue which athletics must combat. One of athletics’ most disturbing revelations, Ben Johnson’s infamous defaming following a positive drugs test at the Seoul Olympics, is almost three decades ago. The world of track and field felt the wound of what was a dark hour for the sport, but in its rude imprudence, has allowed itself to be plagued by countless scandals in the thirty years since: Marion Jones, Florence Griffiths-Joyner, Asafa Powell, Tyson Gay and, perhaps most notably, Justin Gatlin.
Two-time Olympic Champion and two-time convicted drugs cheat, American sprinter Gatlin is seen as potentially one of track and field’s most unpopular athletes. He is the great threat to Usain Bolt, the universally popular half-man, half-superhero, and is unrepentant in the light of the various accusations of wrongdoing against him. Yet, at the same time, Gatlin is a shining example – a shining example of how irresponsible the IAAF has been in failing to punish repeating drugs cheats. The prime issue with letting a drugs cheat off the hook is not only the fact that it demeans the clean athletes; it is not only the fact that it sends out completely wrong signals to aspiring youngsters; it is the fact that it feeds our addiction as spectators, and heightens our expectations to the realm of the fantastical. That is, our addiction to witness great performances: men and women running at phenomenal speeds and pushing themselves to extraordinary physical limits.
When we watch athletics, be it at the stadium or on our television screen, we want, and therefore assume, that the athletes who are competing are clean, honest, and rule-abiding. When we see an athlete exceed all our expectations and achieve a superhuman feat, we are not only excited for the athlete, we ourselves are excited that we have witnessed such an achievement take place – sporting greatness is, after all, a moment in history. When, later on, this athlete is deemed to have played by their own rules and used a metaphorical stepladder to clear the high jump bar, this sense of thrall is snatched away from us as fans, as supporters of track and field. And we are now reaching a situation where our trust in the sport and our patience with the authorities is waning. Badly. The sense of betrayal, the thought that we have been lead into cheering on a drugs cheat, is an emotion that is becoming all too familiar with followers of athletics.
The men’s 100m – the event that captivates the general public more than any other – has become the prime distance over which athletes will go beyond the rules in order to confer a physical advantage over their opponents. At the 2015 World Athletics Championships in Beijing, four of the nine men’s 100m finalists had served doping bans. Gatlin, the eventual silver medallist, was at the centre of the vitriol directed at the four villains of the track. Is it because he is the greatest threat to Bolt out of the four previously banned sprinters? Is it because he has been forced to serve two separate bans? Is it because he has not shown an ounce of contrition following the countless allegations made against him? The chances are that it is a mixture of all three. But directing our anger and our frustration towards one single athlete is a largely fruitless endeavour; it serves no real purpose. Gatlin, drugs cheat though he is, is no more deserving of booing and hissing than his American, Russian, or Jamaican counterparts, yet we criticise athletes more than governing bodies because they are an easy target.
The accountability of the entire drugs problem does not rest with an individual athlete. Rather, it is an independent organisation – the IAAF. Time and again, the International Association of Athletics Federations has been presented with the opportunity to restore faith in the sport by banning a doping athlete and annulling their records. Time and again, the IAAF has opted for impalpable leniency. When an athlete is found to have taken performance enhancers, there is absolutely no reason why they should not be handed a lifetime ban. Yes, a cacophony of cries bewailing injustice will arise when the first athlete is handed a career-paralysing ban, but what of it? The only way to provide assurances to clean athletes, who are in desperate need of the confidence that they are competing in a level playing field, is to bar cheats from the sport for life. Tyson Gay’s one year ban following a doping violation in 2013 was, to quote Usain Bolt, ‘the stupidest thing I ever heard.’ It was the stupidest thing any of us had ever heard. The reason for the one year ban was that Gay provided substantial aid to the investigating authorities – or at least, so claim the United States Anti-Doping Agency. This sort of justification for a one year ban is indicative of everything that is wrong with athletics authorities – why the IAAF stood idly by and allowed a deliberate doper return to competitive athletics within 12 months is, really, rather pitiful. Gatlin, too, ought to have been handed a lifetime ban, not least because his positive drugs test in 2006 was his second violation. But directing our anger towards athletes like Gatlin or Gay achieves very little, as Michael Johnson, former 400m world record holder and four-time Olympic champion, explains:
‘The issue people need to understand is that you’re not going to solve the problem by pointing the finger at an athlete and making that athlete the villain. The athlete has been a villain and certainly has done damage to the sport [...] I don’t appreciate that. But the athlete’s not the one that’s making the rules that allows him to get back on the track or back in the pool, or back on the field.’
In short, it takes two to tango. Yes, a doper may have disrespected the authorities, their competitors, and their fans, but it is the IAAF who allow them to return to the top level of their sport. Worse still, Justin Gatlin is by no means a disgraced athlete in his home nation. Be it short sightedness or jingoistic revelry, Gatlin is still seen as the sinner turned good in the United States – the sprinter who redeemed himself in the face of monumental adversity. Upon reflection, one can only wonder how many years the sport was set back following the decision to allow Gatlin to return to track and field for the second time.
There is a sense, however, that athletics has almost reached the point of no return if it hasn’t already. There may well be so many cheats in the sport who have gone undetected, that to identify them all may well kill off any lingering hope that track and field can shake off its inveterate demons. It could even be possible that, in an attempt to preserve the status of the sport in the short-term, certain athletes with a particularly strong global following are not being tested as rigorously as they should be – athletics cannot bear the brunt of felling a towering sporting personality, exposing them as a fraud.
But where does this leave clean athletes? With the percentage of positive doping tests hardly fluctuating from 1% since 1985, in spite of the formation of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in 1999, there is little hope for those who are determined to train and compete without obtaining an unfair advantage. This leaves us questioning not only the efficacy of WADA, but whether the overall values of athletics are geared towards fair competitions of magnanimous victors and gracious losers. Both of these issues are integral to securing the long-term future of the sport. As Cicero once wrote: ‘the sinews of war are infinite money’ – if this really is a war against drugs and doping, then the only way for it to be defeated is to invest extensively and prudently in order to create rigorous, regular, and high quality forms of testing. With WADA’s budget sitting at just $28m, and with there being 28 Olympic sports, basic arithmetic will tell you that a mere $1m to combat doping in each Olympic sport is a poultry sum. Mike Costello, BBC Athletics Correspondent, may well be onto something when he suggests that a portion of television rights fees for every Olympic Games and World Championships should in some way be reserved for the anti-doping authorities. David Howman, general director of WADA, estimates that it would cost $100m per year to fund WADA staff in each country alongside an independent testing agency. With improved funding, and therefore hopefully improved research, one can hope that drugs tests will not only be more effective in exposing forms of cheating that are currently difficult to detect, such as micro-dosing, but they will be timed at the correct points in athletes’ training cycles to improve the likelihood of catching the frequent drug user.
The long road to redemption for track and field athletics begins at the doorstep of the IAAF and at grassroots level. To neglect the consequences of cheating is to neglect the integrity of a sport which, for decades, has prided itself as being one of the most challenging due to its physical demands upon the body and its competitive intensity. From the first time a schoolchild sets foot upon a grass track, or a playing field, or a 200m cinder surface, staying true to the integrity and honesty of sport should be imperative – respect for officials, respect for coaches, respect for competitors, and respect for themselves. To those who break the rules, the moment of victory is only fleeting; the shame casts an overbearing shadow over a brief spell in the spotlight. For youngsters, losing must be seen as an opportunity to learn and move forward. There will always be rogues who defy the rules, blinded by the dazzling lights of success; but initiating a moral yet still competitive compass on a young athlete could well make a huge difference in our aspiration for a fairer, cleaner sport.
Are all cheats more sinned against than sinning? No – but we must be aware of where the responsibility lies when we are betrayed by a drugs cheat. In troubled times for what is a noble sport, we must speak what we feel, not what we ought to say – we could well be forgiven for speaking a controversial truth if it is in the bests interests of the future of track and field.