A tarnished Silver Jubilee: doping in sport 25 years after Johnson and Delgado
The current anti-doping regime in sport is open to criticism. The necessity for ever more sensitive testing means that laboratory costs are escalating and draining the resources of sport. The application of the World Anti-Doping Code by certain national anti-doping agencies is patchy and thus, although the drug and supplement intake of athletes in some countries is strictly regulated; others are, in effect, self-regulating (and self-medicating).
The World Anti-Doping Agency has recently admitted that detection rates are so absurdly low that the very credibility, even the sustainability, of current anti-doping policy is being undermined. On the twenty fifth anniversary of a sporting summer overshadowed by doping scandals, this brief article asks what, in a legal and administrative sense, can be done to revive the fight against doping and dopers in sport.
The sporting summer of 1988 was dominated by Ben Johnson’s positive test at the Seoul Olympics. It was not, of course, that doping in athletics was unknown at the time – the prevalence of doping at the 1972 Olympics profoundly influenced a Canadian 100 meter runner at the Games, Charlie Francis, who later became Johnson’s coach and spoke about the influence of the Munich Games on his attitude to doping in a book called Speed Trap.[i] It was more the egregious nature of Johnson’s flaunting of the then gossamer-thin, anti-doping regime that shocked sport. The iconic photo of Johnson pointing to the sky and striding ahead of a struggling Carl Lewis, Linford Christie and Calvin Smith remain one of the most arresting images in sport. Of those four, only Smith’s record as an athlete remains unblemished by doping.
Earlier in that summer, the 75th edition of the Tour de France was also tainted by doping. In the middle of the Tour, the eventual winner, Pedro Delgado, tested positive for a drug typically favoured those wishing to mask the use of anabolic steroids. On a technicality – the substance was on the IOC and French cycling federation’s prohibited list but not on the UCI’s banned list – Delgado farcically escaped sanction. On crossing the finishing line in Paris, Delgado told reporters, “I want to forget all this [doping controversy] as quickly as possible.” In a stinging review of the race, Sports Illustrated despaired at cycling’s attitude to doping, arguing plaintively that “anyone who cares about the integrity of the great bike race knows that the plague of drug abuse cannot be so easily dismissed.”[ii]
In the aftermath of both 1988 events, the IOC, the IAAF and the UCI gave solemn promises that dopers would be chased, caught and condemned.
To be fair, initiatives were taken: the World Anti-Doping Agency was established at the turn of the century; millions have been devoted into developing ever more sensitive testing protocols; and athletes in many professional sports are now presented with administrative demands – such as the whereabouts rule – that would be anathema to the unionised workplace.
And yet, a quarter of a century later, doping in sport remains as depressingly topical as ever.
In 1988, the state-sponsored doping regime of East Germany (population 16 million) had its last big event at the Seoul Olympics – coming second in the medals table thanks to a 102 medal haul (GDR was second to that paragon of doping virtue, the USSR; the United States with a population 15 times larger than the GDR, won 94 medals at the Seoul Olympics). We now know from a study released this month by the German interior ministry that, driven mainly by jealousy of the GDR’s success ( the GDR also finished second in the medal table at the 1976 and 1980 Summer Olympics) West German government funding was also used in the systematic doping of a wide range of athletes and including footballers.[iii]
Further, one of the most egregious aspects of the German system, particularly the East and as followed in other Eastern Bloc countries, was the doping of young athletes. Dispiritingly, the recent investigation in Turkey on doping in athletics (as a result of which the Turkish Athletic Federation has given two year suspensions to 31 athletes) also revealed that teenage athletes were doped. Former British athlete Paula Radcliffe told this year’s IAAF Congress that the practice equated to “child abuse”.[iv]
In sum, Johnson’s 10-second burst twenty five years ago at an Olympics otherwise dominated by countries who viewed doping young athletes as being in the national interest, appears now not to have been the nadir in sport’s relationship with doping.
Side effects of doping in sport: guilt by association
As implied for this article’s introduction, athletics and cycling attract the most adverse attention when it comes to doping.
Focussing on athletics, if the recent revelations about former world athletics champion Tyson Gay and Jamaica’s ex-100m world record holder Asafa Powell hold true, five of the so-called 10 quickest men in history have now tested positive. (Technically, it’s six but Tim Montgomery’s 100m world record of 9.78 seconds set in 2002 was struck off in the aftermath of the Balco scandal). Among the top four quickest 100 meters athletes ever, only world record holder Usain Bolt remains – Calvin Smith-like – with an unblemished cv.
The focus on Jamaican athletes – when in July of this year 100m Olympic champion Shelly-Ann Fraser admitted taking a banned substance as a painkiller she became the eighth athlete from Jamaica to face allegations of anti-doping rule infractions in 12 months – have put Bolt on the defensive about his own record.[v]
Post-Lance, the situation in professional road cycling is even worse with the 2013 Tour winner Chris Froome, and Team Sky, similarly forced onto the defensive about their recent success.[vi]
The corrosive, corruptive nature of guilt by suspicion and/or association is one of the nastiest side-effects for any sport perceived to have a problem with doping.
Outside of WADA’s jurisdiction, sports such as baseball, from Barry Bonds involvement in the Balco affair to A-Rod’s 211-game ban in the Biogenesis scandal, have struggled to contain the abuse of performance enhancing drugs.[vii] Within WADA’s jurisdiction, tennis, for example, is sometimes perceived to be rather lax in its financial, administrative, testing and prosecutorial commitment to an effective anti-doping programme. Last year, only three anti-doping cases were prosecuted by the International Tennis Federation. This year attention has been drawn to anti-doping infractions by Viktor Toricki (the Serb was suspended for 18 months for refusing to submit a blood sample at the Monte Carlo Masters in April; an appeal is likely on the ground that Toricki was too unwell to take the test at the time) and Marin Cilic (the Croat tested positive in May; again an appeal is likely with Cilic’s coach attributing the positive test to abnormal glucose levels in a supplement).
Overall, the ITF’s existing anti-doping budget is a rather miniscule $1.8million. It has yet to establish a biological passport database (projected to be in place by the end of this year). WADA figures from 2012 highlight that athletics (27,836) and football (28,008) conducted 9 times more tests than in tennis (3,483). Handball (3,964), skating (3,882) and wrestling (4,451) – sports which would not have the profile or sponsorship dollars that Grand Slam Tennis would have – all conducted more tests.[viii]
In the above context, it is of interest to note the comments of Gianluigi Quinzi, the Wimbledon Junior Champion of 2013, who has been quoted in reply to a question on the prevalence of doping in tennis:
“When you see players play five long sets and then walk back onto the court the next day and play with the same intensity, it’s difficult to not think the worst. I’m not saying [they definitely do] make use of doping. I don’t know. But you do question things when you see certain recoveries.”
Can Quinzi’s statements be dismissed simply “as a 17-year-old [who] did not realise the [guilty by suspicion] implications of what he said?”[ix]
Side effects of doping in sport: corruption corrodes quickly
Rather than focus on individual sports, it must also be stressed that sport more generally struggles to sustain effective anti-doping strategies. The failings of current anti-doping policy were starkly highlighted in a recent report commissioned by WADA and complied by former WADA President and current IOC Committee member, Dick Pound (“the Pound Report”).[x] The weaknesses are encapsulated in the following paragraph from appendix A of the Pound Report:
“Pre-WADA, approximately 150,000 tests were administered annually, compared with the current total of approximately 250,000. On the other hand, despite the significant increase in testing and the ability to detect more sophisticated substances, there has been no apparent statistical improvement in the number of positive results. Indeed, if the statistics regarding marijuana (approximately 500 AAFs per year), asthma medications (200) and glucocorticosteroids (234) for which therapeutic use exemptions had probably been granted, are removed, less than 1% of the tests produce adverse analytical findings. There has not been any statistical improvement since about 1985.”
In sum, the current anti-doping regime has a 1% detection rate, which has not changed since 1985.
Expanding on some of the recommendations in the Pound Report, and including other suggestions; the second half of this brief piece considers means of improving the effectiveness of current anti-doping policy. The idea here is to prompt debate for the longer term good of sport.
Once a corrupt practice begins to corrode the integrity of a sport – be it doping, match-fixing, bribery or maladministration – it is very difficult to stop; as is the (public, sponsors and parental) mood swing away from the sport, and all the related financial support that entails.
The indifference with which the general sporting public treats professional boxing is a prime example of a sport that has been shunted to the margins due largely to self-inflicted wounds and specifically the administrative farrago that is that sport’s alphabet soup of so-called “world” sanctioning authorities. A generation ago, most sports fans could tell you the world champion in most of the major weight classifications, and certainly the name of the heavyweight champion. Ask the same question today, after decades of boxing mismanagement, and the answer you’ll get, if any, is “one of the Klitschkos.”
Given recent doping scandals in athletics – apart from Jamaica’s and Turkey’s troubles; world championship host Russia have nearly 40 track and field athletes serving bans – it will be interesting to see the attendance and TV viewing figures for the forthcoming IAAF Word Athletic Championship in Russia. Will, beyond, the faithful few, many care to watch; and if they do tune in, will they believe all that they see? In other words, and in a similar vein to the Klitschko question above, if you asked previous generations with an interest in sport who the Olympic 1,500 meter champion was – the traditional blue riband event at the Games – names like Nurmi, Delany, Elliot, Snell, Keino, Walker, Coe, El Guerrouj would have come to mind. Do you know the current Olympic 1,500 metres champion – without having to look it up on your smart phone?
The pendulum of a sport’s integrity can swing rapidly from credibility to irrelevancy.
Some solutions to revive the fight against doping in sport – including, controversially, a proposal that WADA partially retreats from the doping battlefield – follow in the next part of this blog and include:
- Stricter, independent auditing of national anti-doping agencies by WADA;
- Tightening of the infraction of the whereabouts rule to 2 missed tests within a calendar year ;
- Lengthening of the 2 year ban in line with that which applies in match-fixing cases;
- Creation of a separate chamber at CAS for doping cases;
- Moral clause approach e.g., percentage of athletes’ winnings/sponsorship bonus to be withheld until their “clean” retirement;
- Controlled use of certain products and supplements currently prohibited to be permitted under medical supervision;
- Complete overhaul of current whistleblowing process in anti-doping policy;
- Creation of the office of a sports doping ombudsman whose first task would be to establish a full truth and reconciliation process for sport and including, unpalatably, the use of amnesties for those “cheated” but who now agree to give evidence but also to hear from the victims of doping and specifically those clean athletes who were defeated and /or ostracised by the doping ethos of their sport.
[i] Charlie Francis (with Jeff Coplon), Speed Trap, Grafton, London, 1991.
[ii] Alexander Wolff, On the Tour de Farce, Sports Illustrated, 1 August 1988, pp60-61.
[iii] The study was conducted by researchers at Humboldt Univerty in Berlin and the University of Munster. An abridged version was released and can downloaded at https://www.bisp.de/cln_320/ (last accessed (9 August).
[iv] See Simon Hart, “World Athletics Championships 2013: Paula Radcliffe accuses Turkey of ‘child abuse’ over doping scandal” The Daily Telegraph, 7 August 2013, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/othersports/athletics/10229422/World-Athletics-Championships-2013-Paula-Radcliffe-accuses-Turkey-of-child-abuse-over-doping-scandal.html.
[v] See, for example, Bolt’s interview with Donald McRae, “I’ve got to run real fast in Moscow to settle any doubts”, The Guardian, 7 August 2013, p40.
[vi] See, however, the passionate defence of Froome by Lance Armstrong’s bête noir David Walsh in “Why I Believe in Chris Froome”, The Sunday Times, Sport, 21 July 2013, pp.6-7.
[vii] See David Walsh, Strike Three, The Sunday Times, Sport, 11 August 2013 and Keith Duggan, Rodriguez creats a rod for his own back with latest revelations”, The Irish Times, Sport, 10 August 2013.
[viii] WADA’s 2012 Anti-Doping Testing Report is available at www.wada-ama.org/Documents/Resources/Testing-Figures/WADA-2012-Anti-Doping-Testing-Figures-Report-EN.pdf (last accessed 7 August 2013).
[ix] Quotes taken from Barry Flatman, “Dope or Doper?”, The Sunday Times, Sport, 4 August 2013, p12.
[x] Working Group Report to WADA Executive Committee on Lack of Effectiveness of Testing Programs (“The Pound Report”) is available at
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