Doping Culture: What’s really going on in athletics?

“Hurrah! The media has gone athletics mad. What a great moment for athletics fans, who have for so long been waiting for their heroes to get some media recognition.”

Said nobody.

It has been a long time, and will be a long time before anyone can imagine this kind of sentiment, so embroiled is the world of elite athletics in the murk of the drugs problem.

So what’s really going on, and why is athletics all over the news right now?

Well, a few things have come to a head this week that have been building up for a long time.

Firstly, in August, German broadcaster ARD released a documentary titled ‘The Secrets of Doping: How Russia Makes its Winners’. Its findings were multitudinous.

“I found coach and doctors who authorize doping, athletes who admit to it, an Act of Government of the State which hinders controls, a laboratory which seems to help with the cover-up, an anti-doping agency which apparently provides appointments for controls and a management that does not want to talk. And then I realize, that still was not everything.”

As is the aim of all good journalism, the documentary prompted the powers that be into action. The World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) was forced to look into the findings. And this week the media has gone “athletics mad” because things are as bad as, if not worse than they seemed.

Some 1400 drugs samples were destroyed in Russia before the anticipated visit of WADA; there was pre-screening and culling of blood samples before they went to the ‘real’ lab; athletes repeatedly refused and avoided tests, avoided phone calls from doping officials, paid money to cover up positive tests and returned early from doping bans; lab officials were allegedly threatened and bribed and they covered up positive tests; doctors and coaches gave banned substances to their athletes; the list goes on. The buzz phrase is ‘systemic doping’ and the findings put not only Russia in jeopardy but the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), for its initial lack of action and lax attitude.

The drugs problem is unfortunately not a new or surprising one. Let’s look at some other major brow-raisers that occurred alongside these findings.

There was the BBC documentary which investigated the Nike Oregon project. Athletes like Mo Farah and Galen Rupp, along with coach Alberto Salazar had a lot to answer for when some damning statements from whistle blowers along with anomalous test results and medical certs suggested there was something afoot with their training. The documentary suggested that if athletes are not cheating, it seems they are at least being encouraged to beat the system in ways that are morally questionable. Some call it ‘micro-dosing’.

Then came the World Championships. The media framed much of coverage around the head to head between Bolt and Gatlin, or what some people called the battle between good and evil. Justin Gatlin, who has served two drugs bans, became a symbol of the drugs problem in athletics. The only way athletics could be redeemed was if Bolt miraculously beat him – which he did – and the sport was saved. Apparently. But many people still had their reservations against former drugs cheats being allowed to compete at all. Four of the nine men in the 100m final had served drugs bans, for example. Two Kenyans were suspended during the competition itself for doping. Not a day went by without the word being mentioned in commentary, though it dismayed commentators to have to do so.

But even with these things in mind, the findings that have come to a head this week are still shocking. They bear the extra weight of – to reuse the buzz word – ‘systemic’ failure on the part of state-run organisations. The focus has turned away from individual athletes and towards systems and states themselves.

The suggestion that Russia be suspended from Rio 2016 is a marked one. Dick Pound, co-author of the report by WADA on the findings, admitted that Russia “was just the tip of the iceberg” and that other countries are at fault too. He alleged that Kenya “has a real problem with doping and has been very slow to acknowledge it.” The main hook of Russian rebuttal hinges around this idea. There’s a sense of ‘Why just us? Why are we being targeted?’

In fact, there is a sense of ‘Why just us?’ to the entire problem, since other sports are at fault too. Athletics is actually one of the most rigorous sports out there in terms of drug testing. It’s no wonder they are finding more if they are looking harder, in other words.

Perhaps a frustration at this fact was latent when Seb Coe commented on the ARD documentary. “It is a declaration of war on my sport,” he announced – something for which he has been repeatedly criticised. He also announced his respect for former president Lamine Diack, who is now being investigated under suspicion of taking bribes to cover up positive drugs tests. These two statements are probably not Coe’s finest PR moments.

But he was eager to assure athletes that there is someone on their side in the midst of all of this – something that doesn’t seem to have been the case for a long time. Racewalker Jared Tallent is among many waiting for his Olympic gold, after coming second to a Russian athlete in 2012. “1185 days have past [sic] since I raced in London,” he tweeted, “How many more do I have to wait until my Olympic gold medal?” In a spoken interview he cried out against the negligence that seems to have been present in high sporting powers: “The supporting body that should be protecting clean athletes is looking after dope cheats.”

What a sundae of elements to swallow. It seems to be a fact that the world of elite sport is weighed down with all sorts of unfairness. Let us not forget how deeply tangled the drugs problem is in other struggles like money and power. Indeed there are some people on the Russian side who would claim that this whole scandal has a political agenda rather than a moral one. We should certainly consider the many roots of this wide reaching problem: the deals that are made to get certain athletes into high profile events, the money that is used to prop up high-profile athletes by high-profile sponsors, the agreements to host championships in certain places rather than others. There are factors at play which, if not corruption are certainly curation, and which foster a culture of unfairness. The only thing that should bring you power in sport is your sporting talent. If I am the best in the world, I should be the best not because Nike wants me to be the best, or because my country wants my success to symbolise their success, or because the media has chosen me as their poster boy, but simply because I have talent and I work hard.

And if there is unfairness at play, we should name it for what it is from the outset, even if we can’t see an easy way to cure it. We shouldn’t wait until the whole thing falls apart. Because it seems to me that the great puppeteers have been pulling the strings trying put on a sensational show. And everything was going well until it wasn’t. And unless we let athletes be humans again, give them back power over their own sport and talent, everything will seem like a farce and nothing will ever be sensational again.

This is an article I wrote last week for Pure M Zine. The original article can be found here.

Lost faith in the pureness of sport? Read about local Cross Country Championships here and you might change your mind.

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