The IAAF Scandal: Drugs Are Bad MKay

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Athletics isn’t a sport I follow closely anymore. My interest was briefly rekindled during London 2012 (I went to the first morning at the Olympic Stadium) but overall I’m a sceptic. It’s a bit like cycling. I’d really like to become a fan, and I can see the appeal, but I just don’t believe it’s clean. Every time I see a cyclist win the Tour de France, or an athlete make a break and leave the pack behind, part of me thinks: “hmmmm you won that a bit too easily for my liking”.

My reaction is probably unfair in the most cases. I imagine there are a lot of clean athletes out there, and some of them might even be quite good, but an armchair fan has no idea who’s clean and who isn’t. I’ve become a fan of world-class athletes in the past, and put them on a pedestal, only to find out later that they were doped up to the eyeballs – quite literally in Ben Johnson’s case. When he famously ‘won’ the 100 metres gold back in 1988, his bulging eyes looked like they might pop out of his head.

Consequently I was saddened, but not at all shocked, when I saw the latest allegations of doping and corruption at the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations). The latest accusation is that national bodies have been deliberately covering it up when their athletes fail drugs tests – the implication being that some countries are actively encouraging the cheats.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) today claimed that the Russian government itself has been intimidating anti-doping officials, and that the country’s anti-doping lab has been compromised. It recommended that five Russians athletes be banned immediately, and that Russia itself should be suspended from international athletics.

What’s worse, the IAAF have allegedly been complicit in recent doping scandals. Indeed, Sky is reporting that IAAF officials have even been extorting athletes who fail tests. In other words they’ve been saying “give us a brown envelope full of dirty dosh, and we’ll make this problem go away”. A few days ago, the former head of the IAAF Lamine Diack was put under formal judicial investigation in France on suspicion of corruption. It looks like this one goes all the way to the top. What a pity if the allegations are true.

I’m sure many of us have suspected Eastern European and Asian athletic boards of organising large-scale doping programmes in the past. Sky mentioned the Russians were in the firing line this morning – anything for a pop at those nefarious Ruskis in the current political climate eh – and who can forget the 12th Man’s Bruce 2000 Sydney Olympics spoof, in which the Chinese athletes Wi Do-Ping and Yay We Wan secured gold and silver on the track. However, it’s worth remembering that the United States and even the UK have had their fair share of scandals over the years too.

It seems to me that doping in sport is a truly global problem. Who can forget the notorious Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes, who allegedly helped some of Europe’s top sportsmen to cheat over a long period of time? Fuentes was convicted of supplying blood transfusions to cyclists back in 2013, but had high profile patients in a number of sports including tennis and football.

Unfortunately however, only the tip of the iceberg was uncovered in the Fuentes scandal because a Spanish judge inexplicably ordered numerous bloodbags, which would have revealed the identities of other drug cheats, to be destroyed. An act our very own Andy Murray described as “beyond a joke”. 

Cynics suggested the judge did this to protect Madrid’s hopes of winning the 2020 Olympics. According to journalists who knew the identity of other sportsmen implicated, but couldn’t report their names for legal reasons, the full details would’ve sent shockwaves around the world. Apparently Fuentes had been helping sportsmen who were household names in Spain and some of the world’s biggest stars.

The latest allegations involving the IAAF are just as big as the FIFA scandal. Indeed, one could argue they’re even bigger.  The accusation that senior IAAF figures are happy for athletes to cheat, and for the Olympics to have zero integrity, as long as they’re lining their own pockets is extraordinary. This goes beyond rigging votes to host tournaments: what we’re talking about here is the credibility of the sport both on and off the pitch. It means that some IAAF officials knew that some Olympic champions were cheating before and after they’d raced. It’s mind-boggling.

When scandals like this come to light, they obviously bring a number of related issues into focus – none of which make particularly happy reading. For starters, who can blame a sportsman who takes drugs if some, if not most, of his rivals are also taking drugs? Obviously it’s not right to cheat, but you can see the dilemma.

Secondly, how on earth are organisations like WADA going to police this problem? The doctors and scientists helping the cheats seem to use incredibly advanced techniques. It strikes me that staying one step ahead of the drug testers must be a relatively simple exercise. After all, how do the authorities anticipate which drugs, and which specific techniques, the dopers will try next? The very nature of testing seems somewhat reactionary.

Of course, some people will always argue that doping is inevitable, and therefore it should be legal. At least this way the playing field will be level. However, this opens up a huge can of worms. Steroids and other drugs can do so much damage to a young person’s health. It would be a tragedy if athletes felt they had to put their long-term health at risk in order to fulfil their dreams.

But what is the answer? Perhaps lurching from one drugs scandal to the next is inevitable, and the best we can actually hope for. There will always be people desperate enough to cheat. What we’ve learned today is that there are people greedy enough to let them get away with it.

James Morgan

9 Comments

  1. Lurching pretty much all we can hope for.

    After all, nice guys finish last.

    And given the steady drip of news about fixing in cricket, I’d be very surprised if some of the new wave of “DLF Maximums” were not being propelled by chemically enhanced biceps.

  2. I read recently that India don’t allow WADA testing on their cricket players? If that’s true then how are their players monitored? I can’t imagine that there is much in the way of internal, rigorous national testing going on there. Even if there was its a country that has demonstrated an unhealthy disdain for following international conventions, their dismissal of DRS being the best example.
    I have to wonder how rigorous the testing regime is in other, less accessible, less friendly and more corrupt nations. The world is a big place and you can’t just limit testing to during competitions. Less well intentioned athletes would be free to compete clean and train as dirty as they liked.
    Don’t know how I really feel about it all to be honest. There don’t seem to be harmful effects with every banned substance, maybe it’s time to create a hierarchy of harm and allow certain drugs?
    Ironic that as I write this I have just seen a news alert that states WADA have recommended a competition ban for all Russian athletes due to high levels of corruption. Anyone fancy a wager on the 2018 World Cup being challenged? The shit will really hit the fan then!

  3. I share your sentiments exactly James but for obvious reasons performance enhancing drugs in sport can never be legalised.

    The last two lines of your post are the saddest and most concerning. That there will always be people desperate enough to cheat and others who are greedy enough to let them get away with it.

    The way to begin is with the people at the top who are taking presumably large sums of money to turn a blind eye but I suspect that drugs in sport will always be a reality.

  4. Cheating is one thing; being required to drug before you can even get coaching support from your national organisation is something else again.

    If Russia is allowed to compete in the Olympics, it might as well be cancelled.

    That said, I’m somewhat conflicted on the issue of artificial enhancement of human capabilities. While much of what goes on now is done without any consideration for any long term health consequences, the rapid march of medical science and technology is likely to make unmodified humanity the exception rather than the rule. And that’s arguably a desirable outcome.

  5. Strangely, cycling probably has far less doping these days than any major sport. It still exists but it has the tightest doping controls and the most scrutiny.

    Soccer players are barely tested. The reality is they’re not trying to catch anybody, so they don’t. Even when they have occasionally caught someone, they’ve got a slap on the wrist. If they started taking doping seriously, half the top grade of European football would be wiped out overnight.

      • Recreational drugs are rife in football but are irrelevant. They’re only policed because WADA needed the cooperation of national governments to enact anti-doping programmes and the US insisted they include recreational drugs on their banned lists.

        There was an interesting report in the Guardian about ten years ago which I stumbled upon again recently. It was about PEDs in football. There was strong evidence that PED use was widespread but virtually nothing was being done to stop it. Ten years on, nothing’s changed. If a footballer is sloppy and unlucky enough to get caught by the laughable tests, a slap on the wrist is the worst he can expect. Edgar Davids tested positive for steroids: four months. Jaap Stam, four months. Pep Guardiola. Four months. Adrian Mutu – first time he got caught – seven months. The second time (and in cycling or athletics this would be a life ban) six months!

        It’s a joke.

        One of the main differences between top flight football and the next wrung down is not so much skill, as the power, speed, strength, and stamina of the players. The incentives for cheating in football are enormous. Guys you’ve never heard of earn more than the best cyclist in the world. What turned up in the Fuentes affair was that Barca and Real likely had organized doping programmes and were being protected by Spanish authorities.

        I think this might have been the Guardian article I was thinking of:

        http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2002/mar/31/football.sport

  6. Northern Light on

    I find your opening comment a little hard to credit, to be honest. If you’re not interested in Athletics then fair enough, but to say you’re not interested because you don’t “believe” it’s clean appears to be a bit foolish.
    I could labour the point about drug testing in cricket (it’s not exactly universal, random or widespread) or match fixing by players and probably even by administrators in certain countries. There’s probably a lot of matches we have all enjoyed that might just have been affected by betting syndicates, “enchanced” players and who knows what else? Yet you’re interest in cricket seems as lively as ever . . .
    It sounds like I’m having a go and I don’t mean it that way, just think presenting it like that seems a bit intellectually dishonest? Unless you’re Ed Smith in disguise . . 😉

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