Last summer, within a few days of each other, some of the biggest names in athletics tested positive for banned drugs. They included Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell, respectively the joint-second and third fastest men ever, and double 200m Olympic champion Veronica Campbell-Brown. The news came as a big shock to the world of athletics. The addition of another high-profile Jamaican athlete, sprinter Sherone Simpson, who was found to have traces of the same stimulant as fellow Jamaican Powell – oxilofrine – to the tally, raised the question of how much Jamaica is doing to combat the use of performance-enhancing drugs. The United States also has much to answer for. The country, famous for its over-achievers in athletics, has a long history of drug cheating. The BALCO scandal revealed a shrewd scheme in which specialists, coaches and athletes had collaborated against the exactitude of drug testing by using so-called ‘undetectable drugs’.
Take Justin Gatlin, for example. The 32-year-old has twice been found to have banned substances in his system – amphetamines in 2001 and testosterone in 2006 – and has consequently been banned twice. The athlete’s second ban was expected to be eight years, but after an appeal and a pledge to act as a whistleblower to help WADA (the World Anti—Doping Agency) unveil other instances of doping, his sentence was reduced to four years. The shamed athlete has been allowed to return to competitive sport and now holds the fastest time over the 200m (19.68) this year.
Wada is the international committee formed to combat against drug abuse in sport and has set about trying to make the punishment for doping more comprehensive. The organisation settled last July to increase the suspension from doping in athletics from two to four years come 2015. This was welcomed by many big names in the sport, both those still competing and those who have retired from the sport.
But what has drawn negative attention is the leniency that is so often bestowed on doping athletes. Tyson Gay, despite returning a sample which tested positive for a banned anabolic steroid, has returned to athletics after a year. The athlete denied knowingly taken any banned substances, but conceded that he had “put his trust in someone” and had been “let down”. It seems the athlete’s co-operation with the U.S. anti-doping agency (Usada) has much to do with his moderate sentence after appealing. Similarly, former world record holder Asafa Powell had his sentence reduced from 18 months to only six months by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), and training partner Sherone Simpson’s initial ban, which like Powell’s, was handed out by the Jamaican anti-doping panel, was also reduced from eighteen months to half a year. Compatriot Veronica Campbell-Brown returned to athletics in February after an appeal.
The impression that such rulings leave is not a positive one, judging from the backlash. The fastest man on the planet, Usain Bolt, has commented on the implications that such seemingly preferential treatment has on the sport as a whole: “It is sending a bad message into the sport that you can do it, but if you co-operate with us we’ll reduce the sentence.”
Marathon world-record holder Paula Radcliffe also protests. “One of the things people have been campaigning so hard for are four-year bans and for that to be made a mockery of is just wrong,” she said. “I’d personally rather see lifetime bans. We need to do more to ensure that clean athletes are protected.
“Athletics is an amazing sport and we want more and more people to take part in it. But what message does this send?”
There is no denying that the use of drugs has tainted athletics. Many innocent athletes are now suspected of cheating. Usain Bolt is still dogged by accusations of doping, despite never having failed a drug test and having shown star potential throughout his athletics career, beginning when he was only 15.
The consequences are even more widespread. There are several athletes recently who have had their medal positions unknowingly usurped by doping track or field competitors, only to discover months later that they were in fact cheated. This has been one of the heavily-felt results of Russia’s malady with substance abuse (the nation in 2013 had 33 athletes serving doping offences). This denies the rightful athletes their moment on the podium hearing their national anthem played, and their laps of victory around the stadium. Relay compatriots suffer in a different way. An entire team has been known to have their medal revoked because of the actions of one dishonest athlete.
The re-entry of those who have taken these rewards away from those who play by the rules back into the sport does seem unjust. People like Justin Gatlin, who return to glory after having cheated twice, appear to have triumphed over the system, as if to say, You can cheat as many times as you like – try not to get caught, but even if you do, it’s not the end of the world.
Many of the coaches are to blame too. Trevor Graham, who used to coach Justin Gatlin and also coached disgraced athlete Marion Jones – was also linked to several other doping athletes.
I don’t believe I’m the only athletics fan who’s despondent about the state of affairs. In a season which has besieged by revelations of positive drug tests by prominent athletes – Commonwealth Games testing revealed two Welshmen, Gareth Warburton and Rhys Williams to be doping, as well as once-unbeatable Amantle Montsho, the Botswanan 400m runner – I’m not afraid to call for lifetime bans. Isn’t it about time that the sport showed a real, no-nonsense approach to the sullying of this wonderful sport?