Sunday, 11 May 2014

doped...or duped?

This past week, I was quoted both in the Guardian and in Sports Illustrated by journalists Sean Ingle and David Epstein, respectively.  

The topic: doping.  And specifically the latest controversy surrounding our sport: the seemingly overly lenient ban of just 12 months for sprinter Tyson Gay.  

“ sane person can find justification in Asafa Powell receiving an 18 month ban for inadvertent stimulant use while Gay receives a 12 month ban for purposeful steroid use - cooperation or no cooperation”.
- me

But this doesn’t tell the complete story.  At all.  As ludicrous as a 12 month ban seems, is it possible that there is method to USADA and WADA’s madness?  As you can imagine, I have been asked quite a few times this past week to expand on these thoughts.  

So briefly...

For 4 decades, the fight against doping has been in lockstep: doping authorities catch the same percentage of doping athletes almost every single year - regardless of the massive improvements in testing procedures.  Clearly, this tells us that the strategies have failed.  

Rather than relying solely on drug testing, the last few years have seen doping organizations change tactics somewhat: an increased reliance on investigation and intelligence.  The case with Gay may in the future be viewed as the tipping point in this tactical transition.  While halving a 2 year ban is clearly a strong incentive to cooperate, we are yet to hear the specifics of the information that Gay has provided USADA.  I’m completely certain that this will involve far more than just the naming of a few unsavory coaches, athletes, and medical personnel.  

Also - forgotten by many in this is the fact that Gay voluntarily admitted to taking the offending substance prior to the Olympic Games in 2012 - thereby relinquishing his - and his relay teammates' - Olympic medal.  So clearly, Gay has been a more than willing participant in the fight (it must be said that he is also in the process of voluntarily returning in excess of $500,000 in prize money and appearance fees accrued during his drug use - expected by many perhaps, but Gay is in the vast minority in this gesture).

My personal opinion is that - even with his cooperation with USADA - the ban is too lenient.  I personally believe the bans would be more suitable if they were reversed - and still send out a strong enough deterrent to athletes considering working with ‘anti-aging’ professionals or placing blind trust in their support group.

In the future, if the Gay case is seen as the vanguard in the fight against doping in sport - and his testimony leads to significant gains in keeping our sport clean, then this reduction in his ban may be well-worth it.  If the fight remains in lockstep for the next 4 decades, then questions of the doping authorities will continue to be asked… 

In a recent email exchange, Sean Ingle brought up a serious issue with the new strategy:

Drug testing agencies’ ultimate responsibility is not only to catch cheating athletes - but to protect clean ones.  

How is providing amnesty to cheaters protecting those that choose to keep it clean?   

Say you’re James Dasaolu.  Say you make the final in Rio in 2016.  And say you are lined up against Tyson Gay. Justin Gatlin. Asafa Powell. Yohan Blake. Say you lose out on a medal by one placing - being beaten by one or more of these athletes.  

Is it fair on Dasaolu that we play the long-game?  

Doc Patton summed it up very elegantly on his blog this past week:

“...understanding athlete intent – and the premise that getting tough on doping means tackling those who aide and abet cheaters – means that at the most basic level, you could theoretically, knowingly do what is wrong, get caught, cooperate and walk away with a slap on the wrist. That’s the watered down version, but are we now at the place where we laud and applaud those who tap dance around rules and procedures because they cooperate? Is it really necessary to sacrifice true consequence for the sake of cooperation? Shouldn’t it be expected? Or is the old adage that says rules are meant to be broken is really true? Have we diminished the value, significance and validity of those rules, so much so, that they’re merely a guide for interpretation? If the rule is the rule and code is code, why not make it all stick and stay? Sure – take down the helpers and their network of friends…just take the cheaters with them. Otherwise, where’s the sting for the cheater? It all feels like a big awkward web of contradictions”.
- Doc Patton

At the end of the day, it is an extremely complicated issue.  It is not black and white.  Remember this when making overly simplistic blanket statements.

more to come...

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