Given what has been uncovered about the state-sponsored doping programme run by Russia, it is no surprise that the faith of spectators in sportsmen and women is waning. However, although Russia have clearly broken the rules and deserve more punishment than they have received, other countries also need to stand up and accept their share of the responsibility for the doping issues which are permeating elite sport.
In terms of Russia, it is a travesty that any of their Olympic team is allowed to compete given the evidence against them. Although there will be a number of clean Russian athletes, the sheer fact that Russia was undertaking state-sponsored doping on such a large scale means that the whole team should have been banned. To have done otherwise is a huge cop-out on the part of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The IOC have been put to shame by the Paralympics who, on Sunday, banned the entire Russian team from competing in this year’s Paralympic games.
But whilst it is right to throw the book at Russia, other countries (the so-called ‘clean’ countries) should not make the mistake of thinking that this is all that needs to be done. If countries such as the US and UK want to be seen as leaders in the fight against doping, then they should also be throwing the book at any of their athletes who are found to have violated doping regulations.
Take the case of British cyclist Lizzie Armitstead for example. Between 20 August 2015 and 9 June 2016 Armitstead missed three drugs tests. The regulations state that an athlete who misses three drugs tests within a twelve month period is liable to be banned from competing for up to four years. The response to the possibility of Armitstead potentially facing a lengthy ban was that British authorities threw huge amounts of money at the problem, hiring expensive lawyers in order to fight any potential ban. Lo and behold, Armitstead got off scot-free. Many fans also reacted as if the whole thing was nothing but a witch hunt. However, former Olympic rowing champion Zac Purchase had it right when he tweeted: “Imagine what we would be saying if she was Russian.” The answer to this is simple. If Armitstead was a Russian who had missed three drugs tests then there would have been absolute horror that she was allowed to compete in Sunday’s road race, irrespective of the fact that she has never tested positive. I am sure that Armitstead is a clean athlete, however she clearly broke the rules and so should face the consequences. Given the reaction of the British Olympic Association to Russia not being totally excluded from the games, it was rank hypocrisy that they then acted in this way when it was one of their own athletes who had violated doping regulations. If other countries want to be seen as credible on the issue of doping, then they have to throw the book at their own athletes just the same as with Russia. Unfortunate as it is, the only way to ensure clean sport is to make examples of those who transgress.
There is also the problem of what to do with individuals who have previously been caught for a doping offence but now profess to being clean. In the spirit of rehabilitation it seems fair that those who have tested positive once but are now clean are allowed to compete. For instance, Spanish cyclist Alejandro Valverde who served a two year ban after being caught up in the Operacion Puerto doping case. Valverde has now been back in competition for four years and hasn’t been linked to doping in any way.
However, the same cannot be said for those who are admitted back into competition following a failed test and are then subsequently caught for a doping offence once again. This brings us to the cases of Yulia Efimova and Justin Gatlin. Efimova failed a test in 2014 for the banned steroid DHEA, serving a nine month ban. A year after her return to competition she then tested positive once again, this time for meldonium (the same substance which recently earned Maria Sharapova a two-year ban from competitive tennis). I’m all for giving someone another chance, but for them to then test positive again, that should be the end of it. There is no way that Efimova should have been allowed to swim at the Olympic games.
The same can be said of Justin Gatlin. The American sprinter has also tested positive twice: first he was banned for two years in 2001 after testing positive for amphetamines; and then in 2006 he was banned for eight years (later reduced to just four) after testing positive for a form of testosterone. Gatlin is now back competing and is running the fastest times of his career, meaning that he has a very real chance of winning a medal in the 100m in Rio. The American team were strongly in favour of a mooted ban for any Russian athletes who had tested positive in the past, so why on earth are they allowing Gatlin to compete? If the United States want to be seen as credible on anti-doping then they should have given Gatlin a lifetime ban after his second positive test, and he should not have been selected for this Olympic Games as a result. To be fair to most of the other athletes it seems that they would be in favour of this sort of action, American swimming gold medalist Lilly King said on Wednesday that she felt athletes previously banned for drug offences, such as Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay, should be kicked off the American team. The fact that they haven’t been is rank hypocrisy, and suggests that the United States aren’t truly serious about confronting the scourge of doping in sport.
One of the biggest issues when it comes to preventing doping is the length of bans handed out to those who violate the rules. Efimova, who has tested positive twice, has served cumulative bans of only around one year. The same is true of Chinese swimmer Sun Yang who tested positive for banned stimulant trimetazidine in 2014, he was banned for just three months. If sporting bodies want to win the battle against doping then the only option is to make an example of those who break the rules. For those found guilty of using performance enhancing drugs then a four year ban (a full Olympic cycle) should be the bare minimum. For an athlete that has previously served a ban, then it is fair to allow them back to compete once again. But if they then have the temerity to break the rules again, a lifetime ban is the only option.
Ultimately, if countries that pride themselves upon being seen as ‘clean’ competitors want to eradicate the scourge of doping then they must throw the book at anyone who transgresses, whatever country they happen to represent. In the case of missed drugs tests it is all very well saying that it was simply an error, but to make that error three times is poor and it should be met with a ban, the same as it would be if the violator was Russian. Likewise, it is wrong for the United States to welcome back the likes of Justin Gatlin into the Olympic team. He has been caught for doping offences twice, and to allow him back into the team sets a terrible example for young athletes as well as being a huge step back for the fight against doping in sport.