Drugs In Sport: Who Do We Trust Enough To Cheer?

*** As seen on Jericho ***

Three hundredths of a second. The difference between success and failure; jeers and adulation; Justin Gatlin and Usain Bolt. The margins in sport are incredibly tight: hopes are dashed, careers made, and legacies secured in the blink of an eye. As such, athletes go to extraordinary lengths to gain even smallest advantage in competition. Training innovations, recovery and nutrition plans, fine-tuning technique and marginal gains in fitness are just some of the ways athletes seek to improve their performance.

Another is doping. Those who dope are labelled drug cheats, and ‘doping’ is a dirty term. But is a doper necessarily a cheat when some drugs are legal in regulated quantities? To what extent is the issue of drugs in sport a moral one?

Justin Gatlin beats Christian Coleman and Usain Bolt to the 100m title in London, Credit: AP

Justin Gatlin beats Christian Coleman and Usain Bolt to the 100m title in London, Credit: AP

Gatlin pipped crowd favourite Bolt to the world 100m title in the London Stadium last week by the slenderest of margins. Gatlin, twice banned for doping offences and labelled a ‘drugs cheat’, was roundly booed by the watching public: the crowd wanted a Bolt victory and were denied it by someone who has cheated in the past. But the boos for Gatlin stem just as much from what he represents - the widespread practice of doping in sport. Athletics has already faced huge doping scandals in the last 12 months, and the debate wears on about whether offenders should receive lifetime bans and what more can be done. The crowd’s vocal protest in the London Stadium would suggest that, for the public at least, there is no place for drugs in sport.

The blurring of doping legality

Athletes use drugs regularly for recovery, medicinal purposes and in other ways to boost their levels of performance. The very idea that performance-enhancing drugs are bad is flawed, given that anything an athlete does is aimed at enhancing their performance. Indeed, as philosopher Julian Savulescu points out: ‘caffeine is a performance-enhancer. It used to be banned, and now it’s allowed’.

What is more, the line between cheating and fair competition is surprisingly blurred. Sir Bradley Wiggins’ use of potent corticosteroid triamcinolone was widely criticised, however he played within the UCI's (Union Cycliste Internationale) rules, using the drug under the auspices of a 'therapeutic use exemption' (TUE). Wiggins did not cheat, but he did take a substance which is banned for those without a TUE. Wiggins took drugs, but is not technically a ‘drugs cheat’. His reputation and legacy may be under considerable threat, but only because supporters and journalists consider his actions to be morally questionable, not because he broke the rules. As such, in the public's perception of athletes, morality is inexorably linked with the issue of drugs in sport.

Bradley Wiggins in the yellow jersey on the Champs'Élysées, 2012, Credit: Bettini Photo

Bradley Wiggins in the yellow jersey on the Champs'Élysées, 2012, Credit: Bettini Photo

The Gatlin case

Justin Gatlin did break the rules. He tested positive for injected testosterone and was banned from competing for four years. Gatlin was later reinstated by the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) and deemed eligible to compete. He has become the unwitting standard-bearer for the athletes that have been caught. Another previously banned athlete, Yohan Blake, competed in that final, but was not subjected to boos. Was the crowd particularly anti-Gatlin and prepared to turn a blind eye to Blake’s previous convictions? No - public opinion of Gatlin is shaped by those who inform our opinions.

Selective reporting and media bias affect the way we think and how much we know. The BBC studio team debated the point on air, as Michael Johnson took Steve Cram to task over the fact: ‘why don’t you mention all of the other people? How is it that Justin Gatlin stands out so far in your mind, and in other people’s minds, above all the other drug cheats? Explain the difference between him and the others.’

For those that believe in lifetime bans for using performance-enhancing drugs, there is no difference. A blanket ban on offenders would significantly increase the risks for dopers, but it is a step that the IAAF is not willing to take. The governing body also took the decision to reinstate Gatlin, and the boos are directed as much at this decision as they are at the man himself. IAAF president, Lord Sebastian Coe, then betrayed the muddled thinking of the organisation when he claimed afterwards that Gatlin’s win was ‘not the perfect script’, thereby undermining the very rules that the IAAF imposes.

Gatlin is not the only case where the media could better hold athletes to account. Mo Farah recently won his seventh World Championship gold, but his coach, Alberto Salazar, is under investigation for his alleged use of anti-doping practices. Farah’s career took a remarkable upward turn after being exposed to Salazar’s ‘obsessive coaching methods’, and while Farah has continually denied doping, it is arguable that he shies away from tough questions. At this year’s World Championships, his media appearances have been carefully managed. Could the media do more to question Farah on his training regime?

Farah celebrates winning the 5000m World Championship title, Credit: Reuters

Farah celebrates winning the 5000m World Championship title, Credit: Reuters

A thankless task

Much like Coe’s comments, the whole issue is coated in hypocrisy. Commentators and pundits describe the Bolt-Gatlin case as a battle between good and evil, between right and wrong. They present the issue as a moral conundrum, that a sportsperson should not take performance-enhancing drugs simply in the interests of fair play. They trust federations to catch dopers, but don’t trust them to make the correct decisions when it comes to punishments and reinstatement. For any athlete, the temptation to use a banned substance that will significantly improve performance is high. As journalist Ross Tucker suggests, "it’s like getting down on your hands and knees searching for the pennies, while there is a $100 note lying on the table". 

A solution to the wide-ranging problem of drugs in sport is not forthcoming. As testing improves, so do doping practices, making it almost impossible for any organisation to catch all drug cheats. After all, proven doper Lance Armstrong never failed a drug test. Catching cheats relies, therefore, on the athlete. If every doping offender were convicted, one could count on the likes of WADA and the IAAF to ensure that every athlete were clean.

Who do we trust?

However, as the federations can not ensure this, watching sport is intrinsically linked to trust and morality. The viewer must accept that there may be a doper competing. Anyone who watches the World Championships can decry the fact that former convicted dopers are able to compete, but they have to accept that not all dopers are being caught.

Part of the beauty of sport is the story, the struggle and sacrifice, and doping taints those stories. For the public to enjoy sport, they must assume that athletes are clean until proven guilty. Sport is driven by spectators, by the desire to see people break records and reach new heights. Athletes make the decision to dope, but just as the public’s opinions are shaped by the media, the athlete’s goals are shaped by expectations. Doping is a consequence of our desire to witness greatness; and greatness can be decided by three hundredths of a second. The temptation to take banned substances will never be far from an athlete's mind considering everything that is at stake, but it is the media's responsibility to treat all dopers the same and ensure all of the facts are in the public domain.