“He’s saved his title, he’s saved his reputation!” yelled Steve Cram, as Usain Bolt crossed the line just inches in front of Justin Gatlin.
“He may have even saved his sport.”
Bolt’s victories over convicted drug-cheat Gatlin in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m events at the recent World Athletics Championship at Beijing were warmly embraced as a reprieve for athletics. Rocked by scandal in recent weeks after evidence of widespread doping was shown to The Sunday Times and the German Broadcaster ARD/WDR, athletics was in desperate need of a pick-me-up.
Yet this reprieve will prove only to be temporary; while Bolt won the battle with Gatlin, the war between dopers and doping agencies rages on. A study by the University of Tubingen in Germany suggests that as many as a third of athletes competing at the World Athletics Championships in Daegu, South Korea in 2011 had violated doping rules in the previous 12 months. The IAAF contests the study’s findings but evidence of widespread doping extends further than this one study. A BBC Panorama documentary broadcast in June reveals evidence suggesting that Alberto Salazar, one of the world’s most respected endurance coaches, has in the past violated anti-doping regulations. The issue could not be clearer: doping is still widespread in athletics.
Indeed athletics is not the only sport with a doping problem. Other endurance sports, cycling in particular, have suffered similar allegations, with newspaper headlines across the world revelling in sport’s ‘next biggest scandal.’ Lance Armstrong’s confession in 2013 all but confirmed Tyler Hamilton’s claim that around 80 per cent of the peloton were doping during the 1990s.
We must do more to stamp doping out of sport. It is undermining our trust in athletes’ achievements, crushing the hopes of young, clean athletes, and poisoning our love for sport. Lord Coe remarked at the opening ceremony for the Olympic Games in London in 2012, “There is a truth to sport, a purity, a drama, an intensity, a spirit that makes it irresistible to take part in and irresistible to watch.” It is this truth, this purity that we must preserve if we are to preserve the almost uniquely positive, joyful impact that sport can have in bringing people together to celebrate the virtue of human beings stretching themselves to the limits of their ability.
But what can be done?
Drug testing has become more sophisticated, but so have the methods of those determined to cheat. So while drug-testing agencies around the world need to continue to be reviewed and update their testing policies, a new approach is required.
Firstly, there needs to be recognition from sports authorities such as the IAAF and UCI that doping is a serious and a persistent problem in their respective sports. These institutions must work more closely both with WADA, the supra-national anti-doping agency, and with national anti-doping agencies such as UKAD and USADA. A coordinated response to the issue, in contrast to the head in the sand approach of the IAAF in recent years, for example, is absolute necessary if we are to properly hold athletes guilty of doping to account. Sporting bodies are too often afraid of damaging the reputation of their sport but it is time to stand up to those who flagrantly violate the rules.
Further coordination between national doping agencies themselves could also prove successful. When advances in testing methods are made, national doping agencies could share these advances more quickly, thus helping to ensure the highest level of testing in all countries.
Greater multi-lateral coordination and agreement is central to ensuring that more of the cheats are caught. But a more fundamental problem is that the potential upside to doping considerably outweighs the downside for many athletes. More stringent punishments for those who dope are needed in order to rebalance this equation. A ‘once and done’ policy, where athletes would automatically be handed a lifetime ban if found guilty of serious doping offences would be a much more effective deterrent.
Some, naturally, would regard this policy as unfair: punishing athletes for just one bad decision. But what is more unfair is that clean athletes simply cannot compete with those who are doping and they are being robbed of medals at major championships as a result. We must send a ‘zero tolerance’ message to dopers; life-bans for serious doping offences would be a good way to start.
Progress will be slow and hard-going but sport is very much worth fighting for. Sport drives people to work hard, to aim high and to push their bodies to the limit of human exertion. There is a romance to sport and whether you are watching it or playing it, it provokes emotions quite unlike almost anything else.
Doping undermines the integrity of these emotions and stifles the romance of sport. We must do everything that we can to stop it.