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Every week there seems to be another drugs issue in the media. Whether it is Lance Armstrong, Frank Schlek, Hope Solo, Bradley Wiggins or LaShawn Merritt, performance enhancing drugs contaminate news pages everywhere.
Last week John Fahey, president of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), sent out a warning to all Olympic competitors.
“If you are a doping athlete and you are planning to compete in London then you must withdraw from your Olympic team,” said Fahey.
“These will be the most tested Games in Olympic history and doping athletes must know that they will be under the severe scrutiny of anti-doping officials from the moment they set foot in the Olympic Village,” he added.
But how successful will they be in the testing, and how will we ever be sure of their success?
Let’s rewind 12 years – Sydney 2000. Marion Jones was America’s sweetheart, she broke numerous records and won five medals. Wow, a superhuman effort, it seemed too good to be true. And sadly it was.
Jones later admitted (after a lot of lying) that she had taken drugs as part of the BALCO scandal, a high profile drugs scandal involving some high profile athletes such as Dwain Chambers and Barry Bonds.
With Victor Conte as her nutritionist she had been using a cocktail of drugs including THG or,”the clear”, a development from BALCO which was undetectable.
It was only when a rival trainer sent a sample of “the clear” to WADA that they managed to develop a test for it.
Jones took over 160 drug tests during her career and did not fail one.
Neither has Armstrong. Yet, there are numerous ex-team-mates that will testify, under oath, that they were with him as he was doping illegally. Moreover, three of Armstrong’s former coaches have been banned for life from the sport. Take of that what you will.
The problem is the drug testing technology is behind the drug developing technology, and while athletes are often caught years posthumously, justice never seems to be done. And the second-placed athletes never get the right recognition for their achievement. Who knows the name of the Olympic gold medal holder of the women’s 200m from 2000? (Pauline Davis-Thompson).
LaShawn Merritt, the current 400m Olympic champion, was caught doping in 2009. He was banned for two years (reduced to 21 months) and managed to overturn his lifetime Olympic ban imposed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and will defend his title in London. He claims he was using a penis enlargement product which had testosterone in it.
It is important to note that Merritt’s was a landmark case. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in favor of WADA over the IOC that a lifetime ban from the Olympics can effectively result in double jeopardy after an athlete has served their two year ban. This ruling has had knock on effects for athletes such as Dwain Chambers and David Millar who will now compete at the Olympics after their lifetime Olympics bans from the British Olympic Association were overturned.
The fact that Merritt did not even miss a world championship, for me, is unacceptable. But then again, he may have just wanted to improve the size of his manhood and not benefit from any stimulant contained within, so who am I to judge?
How can WADA find out if these stories and excuses are true or false? Are some athletes making innocent mistakes because the list of performance enhancing drugs is too extensive and complex? How long should they be banned for? How much of a substance is needed in order to benefit the athlete? So many questions, and the problem for WADA is that there are no clean cut answers.
Fahey is currently asking sports governing bodies around the world about what they would prefer the doping policy to be for the next Olympic cycle. It seems, and I hope that, the maximum ban will be increased to four years, so an athlete will automatically miss the next major championships in whichever sport it may be.
Two years doesn’t seem long enough, and for me a lifetime ban is too extreme. While I do not agree with doping, I think that many athletes do not use drugs intentionally, and many of them will hugely regret their decision – if you make a serious mistake in the office, you may get fired, but you won’t be banned from the industry for life.
A four year ban is severe enough to provide a deterrent, but the most dedicated athletes could still come back to prove their true talent and skill.
WADA faces many challenges in an ongoing uphill battle. Implementing a decent ban time that is uniform across all sports (including baseball and American football) will be a big step in the right direction.
WADA claims this will be the most tested games ever. But how will they test their success?
By catching more cheats, they will be showing their techniques are successful, but people will become more disillusioned with certain events. If they don’t catch many dopers, people will believe the sports are getting cleaner, but how will we ever really know? It could just be the result of some really advanced drug technology that WADA is not yet familiar with.
It seems to be a lose-lose situation.
Will there be one day where they give up and legalize all performance-enhancing drugs to create another level playing field? I hope not. It doesn’t fit in with the whole idea of sport.
However, the problem seems to be so large in sports such as sprinting, boxing, cycling, wrestling and weightlifting that it makes me think this could soon be the only viable option.
I am sure London 2012 will expose some depressing truths and churn up some bad surprises. But it will also showcase some immense talent, determination and hard work. It is just a shame that I, like many others, will question the authenticity of some of the great genuine sporting achievements that we will see in a few days time.