And speaking of Russia, its worth mentioning the Russian doping ban of a few weeks ago. Now anybody who believes that doping is purely a Russian problem, is living in cloud cuckoo land (as Paul Kimmage’s recent article in the Irish Independent should hammer home). I mean least we forget that the Americans alone have seen Marion Jones, Tyson Gay, Lance Armstrong and Justin Gatlin to name but a few banned in the last few years. Similarly anyone who believes that all British athletes are clean (or French, or Irish, or Australian), well I’ve got some real bad news for you.
The reality of doping is that many have this image of it being the odd athlete sneaking a few pills in his water bottle in the locker room before a race. However in truth, its much more sophisticated, as the Lance Armstrong case shows. In truth is more akin to the training scene in Rocky IV. While the Russians will try to claim this was a few rogue athletes, the evidence is for a sophisticated state sponsored system, which would generally be more plausible. And its doubtful that any athlete could dope without Putin’s security services knowing about it.
The Russians of course claim that this is punishment for their actions in Ukraine or Syria. However, the fact is that this story first broke some time ago, so the timings don’t quite match the Russian rhetoric. Furthermore it is quite obvious that Putin began to use athletics as a political tool, much like the old soviet union in the past. Much like everything Putin, he pushed too far and his arrogance blinded him to the consequences of getting caught.
So is it overly harsh that Russia gets banned like this, when we ignore doping by athlete’s in other countries? Perhaps, however it was very difficult for either Wada or IAAF to ignore such blatant state sponsored doping on this scale. Had they not taken action, this would have all but amounted to de-facto legalisation of doping in sport.
I would argue that this scandal does mean there is a need to take a more serious look at the problem and I see only three options that will work.
The first says we maintain doping bans. In this case the penalties need to get harsher. No more slap on the wrist fines and two year bans. A minimum four year ban or ten years for serious offences, with the athlete automatically stripped of all medals won in their career to date, plus a fine equal to all sponsorship money and prize money repaid with interest, should be sufficiently severe to scare them all straight. Throw in a three strikes rule for all national teams (three athletes test positive within say a four year period, the entire team is banned for four years and all medals and resulted for the previous four revoked) and state sponsored doping will quickly be stopped. However, I don’t seem this being acceptable, because it would also mean practically every major athlete would retire for fear of getting caught, even those who haven’t been doping.
Option B is accept the fact that doping happens. That most of the recent athletic performances of the last few years have probably been as much triumph’s of chemistry as they are of sporting excellence. Just make athletes declare everything they are taking and test to ensure they aren’t overtly harming their health. We could even introduce some sort of handicap system, with athletes given a weighted belt to shave a few seconds off their time when competing against genuinely clean athletes. We could even get the drug companies to sponsor athletes. If the pharmaceuticals of Pfizer’s are going to power an athlete to success, the least we can do is acknowledge that and let them get a bit of publicity from it.
Option C is to do away with professional athletes altogether. Go back to the era of amateur athletes who run for the fun of in their time off. Perhaps a simple rule that athletes must be in full time employment, or better yet members of a university sports club (limiting any athletes career to the 3-5 years they are at college) and an active full time student. Such athletes would be a lot less inclined to dope, knowing that they would have nothing to gain financially from it and would merely be ruining their health and ability to earn in later life.
Clearly however the policy of only punishing those who get caught with a slap on the wrists is not going to work. Like a career criminal who sees prison as a risk that’s part of the job, athletes will continue to see being caught for doping as a rare but acceptable career risk.