Blood doping: have the guilty athletes already won?

The allegations of widespread blood doping in the world of athletics have undermined the credibility of the IAAF, but how many sporting heroes have cheated the system and escaped unpunished? Simply offering a three-year ban is not enough

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How much doping will go on in Beijing?
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Luke J. Harris
On 19 August 2015 11:28

This coming Sunday 23rd August at approximately 2.35 BST the final of the Men’s 100 metres, the blue ribbon event at this year’s World Athletics Championships, will take place in Beijing.

Barring injury and last minute poor form the final should be a showdown between the Jamaican Usain bolt and the American Justin Gatlin. 

Bolt needs no introduction: he is the double Olympic 100m champion after victories in both the Beijing and London Olympics (where he also won both the 200m and 4x100m). He is also the present World Champion and an advocate of competing ‘clean’.

Gatlin might not be as well known to the general public. This is because, although he was the 2004 Olympic 100m Champion, he has been suspended for large periods of his career because he has served two separate suspensions for drug taking.

The first of these came in 2001 when he tested positive for amphetamines and subsequently he was banned for two years.

Then in 2006, Gatlin was given an eight year ban for testing positive for testosterone, a substance which has potential long term effects and theoretically could still be aiding his performance.

This ban was reduced to four years and in August 2010 he returned to athletics. Now at the age of 33 Gatlin is in the form of his life and has run the four fastest times of 2015.

Such is Gatlin’s form that many are tipping him to beat Bolt in Beijing. Sports journalist and writer Richard Moore (The Scotsman, 16/8/15), has described the showdown between Bolt and Gatlin as ‘good versus evil’. While Martha Kelner in The Mail on Sunday (16/8/15) suggested that a Gatlin victory would tarnish the reputation of the sport.

The question that should be asked is: have the drugs cheats already won?

The recent allegations and suspensions by the IAAF highlight the number of athletes who have been competing while taking illegal substances. 25 athletes were banned last week but undoubtedly there are more out there who go uncovered, and win championships, money and glory.

A prime example of this is Asli Cakir Alptekin, the women’s 1500m Olympic Champion from the London Olympics. This week she was stripped of this title and banned for eight years for abnormal readings in her blood.

Although justice has now been severed, it is just over three years since her victory in the Olympic Games, where she won her race, received a gold medal, took the cheers of the crowd and stood at the top of the podium to listen to her national anthem.

The damage to athletics and the memory of the London Olympics has already been done.

A more extreme example of drugs taking comes in cycling and American Lance Armstrong, who won the Tour de France, the sport’s most prestigious race, seven consecutive times between 1999 and 2005.

Since the revelations his titles have been stripped from him and he has been banned for life. The money which he earned as a consequence has been reclaimed from him, but as he proclaimed himself, nobody can take away the memory of his victories.

The pleasure of winning, what ultimately all sportsmen and women compete for, can never be taken from him.

Both these athletes and many others who are caught are now disgraced, but how many athletes go unpunished? The recent scandals within the IAAF have once again brought the issue of the use of drugs in sport to the fore, the methods used by the cheats, the ways by which they can be caught and the extensiveness of the punishments.

Many athletes want all drugs cheats to be given lifetime bans, but often this isn’t the case. The majority are just given two or four year sentences. The recent issues within the IAAF demonstrate that for some athletes the risk has paid off and they have competed, run and run again without being caught.

Lifetime bans from any involvement in sport would surely help to put off those considering cheating. To an ageing athlete in their late twenties/early thirties with their career seemingly going downhill using performance enhancing drugs is potentially worth the risk, if they just get a two year ban.

When drugs scandals within sport are uncovered it is very easy to blame the organising authorities, such as the IAAF and cycling’s UCI. While the UCI has, and the IAAF is now answering many awkward questions about its drugs testing, the problem for these organisations and the World Anti-Doping Agency is that they are always one step behind the cheats.

Often such organisations are merely playing catch up with the latest advances in performance enhancing techniques.

More action must be taken to ensure that drugs takers are caught. The scandals which have plagued athletics and cycling in recent decades must not be allowed to happen again.

More must be done to help those carrying out the tests and more of the huge amount of money which is invested in sports needs to be put into tackling illegal substance taking.

More out-of-competition tests must take place, punishments must be harsher and athletes need to be educated in the dangers.

It’s hard not to want Usain Bolt to win. He’s a lovable showman and he has the talent to back it up. Come Sunday, sports fans, fellow athletes and those with a commercial interest will undoubtedly be supporting athletics' ‘White Knight’.

Luke J. Harris is a Sports Historian from Canterbury Christ Church University. He is the author of ‘Britain and the Olympics 1908-1920: Perspectives on participation and identity’

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