Mike Rowbottom: The Tyson Gay deal. It's not good - but is it right?

Thursday, 08 May 2014
mike rowbottom ©insidethegamesRyan Wilson runs fast, but talks slowly – and thoughtfully.

As an athlete, this 33-year-old product of Columbus, Ohio has taken his time to reach the heights, having made his debut in the US team last summer - nine years after turning professional.

Wilson made his breakthrough count as he took silver in the 110 metres hurdles at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow behind another American making a belated golden breakthrough, David Oliver.

Speaking in Doha ahead of Friday's opening IAAF Diamond League meeting, Wilson - who will be competing at the Qatar Sports Club track for the first time - sat alongside two fellow US athletes in 23-year-old Christian Taylor, the ebullient Olympic triple jump champion, and 25-year-old Curtis Mitchell, another competitor who made a breakthrough in Moscow by taking bronze over 200m.

When I raised the topic of mitigating doping bans by cooperating with anti-doping authorities - less than a week after it emerged that US sprinter Tyson Gay had had his suspension halved to one year after providing the US Anti-Doping Agency with helpful information - there was a short and significant pause.

While the two younger men decided not to respond, Wilson stepped painstakingly up to the mark.

Ryan Wilson (left), pictured finishing behind fellow US high hurdler David Oliver in Stockholm last year, has made the case for reducing doping bans in exchange for information ©AFP/Getty ImagesRyan Wilson (left), pictured finishing behind fellow US high hurdler David Oliver in Stockholm last year, has made the case for reducing doping bans in exchange for information ©AFP/Getty Images

Half-an-hour earlier, sitting in the same chairs as the US athletes, three Kenyan competitors had answered the same question with vehement criticism of the "plea bargaining"' arrangement.

The ruling involving Tyson was made in accordance with article 10.5.3 of the World Anti-Doping Agency's code, which enables an athlete to have up to 75 per cent of his or her ban reduced if they provide "substantial assistance" to the anti-doping authorities.

When the new WADA code comes into operation in January next year, athletes testing positive could avoid any ban at all if they are able to offer sufficiently cogent information on how and where they had received assistance to the authorities.

Tyson Gay running in Lausanne on July 4 last year - ten days later news of his positive test at the US Championships emerged ©AFP/Getty ImagesTyson Gay running in Lausanne on July 4 last year - ten days later news of his positive test at the US Championships emerged ©AFP/Getty Images

Kenyan Olympic champions Asbel Kiprop and Ezekiel Kemboi, and world 800m champion Eunice Sum, all voiced their opposition to such calculations and insisted that life bans should be applied to those found guilty of doping, even for first-time offences.

"I think it is the wrong message to send," said the quietly spoken Kiprop, a double world 1500m champion whose experience of Olympic gold, from Beijing 2008, was tarnished by the fact that he finished behind a man whose performance was belatedly disqualified by a positive doping test, Bahrain's Rashid Ramzi.

"If reductions on bans are going to be made, athletes will take advantage of it. They should tell what they know anyway," Kiprop added.

Asbel Kiprop, seen celebrating his 1500m world title last summer, is vehemently opposed to 'plea bargaining' doping suspensions ©Getty ImagesAsbel Kiprop, seen celebrating his 1500m world title last summer, is vehemently opposed to 'plea bargaining' doping suspensions ©Getty Images

Kemboi, whose wide smile and flamboyant celebration dancing after his 3,000m steeplechase victory in 2012 provided the London Games with one of its enduring images, also objected to the idea of reducing bans in exchange for information. "Personally I don't think it is a good idea," he said. "If a ban is four years, let it be four years. If you are an athlete and you have cheated, you have to pay. Take your ban."

The Kenyan's attitude is one Wilson fully understands. But he believes the WADA approach, while it may stick in many people's throats, has wider and more profound benefits for the sport.

Kenya's Eunice Sum, pictured after her surprise 800m win at last year's IAAF World Championships, believes life bans should be introduced for first-time doping offences ©Getty ImagesKenya's Eunice Sum, pictured after her surprise 800m win at last year's IAAF World Championships, believes life bans should be introduced for first-time doping offences
©Getty Images


"It makes sense," he said. "You know, unfortunately, we live in a world where people will give up information in the same way as with the legal system.  Currently if you are willing to cooperate with law enforcement you see the same types of leniency from prosecutors and judges. So I don't think it's out of the realm of history.

"If you've committed offences, oftentimes there needs to be a bit of a carrot for you in order to cooperate. And I think it's 'win-win' in a sense. I know it's disappointing that someone may not get punishment that is perhaps equal to the crime, or a punishment that is equal to the same crime that someone else committed, but at the same time I think it's important at this point - we are talking about specific cases - we generally don't know all the information.

"So to speak on them is really coming from a relative position of naivete to not know all the information involved. But on another point, if people are interested in a clean sport and there's people engaging in practices that aren't clean, and they have information that will help clean up the sport that we can't get otherwise, then however disappointing it may be in a sense  I would prefer to have the information, personally, to help achieve the overall goal."

As his two younger colleagues stared ever more fixedly at the table in front of them, Wilson added a final element to his argument:

"I see why, if you are talking about this Tyson case, I see why some people are up in arms. It seems kind of crazy. But if you sit and think about it from another angle you begin to understand why there is some sense in it."

It is, to be sure, a complex subject – and a debate that will doubtless be re-visited on numerous occasions in the space of the next year.

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, covered the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics as chief feature writer for insidethegames, having covered the previous five summer Games, and four winter Games, for The Independent. He has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, The Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. His latest book Foul Play – the Dark Arts of Cheating in Sport (Bloomsbury £12.99) is available at the insidethegames.biz shop. To follow him on Twitter click here.
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