Alan Hubbard: Doping in sport seems to be a war that cannot be won but the good guys must fight on
Wednesday, 28 March 2012
Most sports editors of my acquaintance – and I have been one myself on several occasions – tend to sigh with boredom at the mere mention of HGH, EPO or nandrolone. I rather suspect that the public, by and large, also think it a load of anabolics.
Yet the issue continues to bedevil the Olympics. Since a red-eyed Ben Johnson's steroid-raged run in Seoul 24 years ago seeing has never really been believing for many of us.
Sure, more cheats are being caught than ever before thanks to refined testing techniques, but one suspects just as many – if not more – are still getting away with it through equally refined means of masking or knowing exactly when to stop taking the tablets.
It is not just the testers who are taking the pee.
Just like the war in Afghanistan, this seems to be one that cannot be won. But the good guys have to keep on trying.
I just wish some would try a little harder.
We are told that Britain is at the front line in the battle.
But if this really is the case then why has there not been greater support from the now independent UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) for the British Olympic Association's (BOA) unilateral attempt to retain the rule which is surely the best deterrent of all putative sports junkies with Olympic aspirations – being banned from the Games forever.
We await the imminent verdict from the Court for Arbitration in Sport (CAS) on whether the BOA remains compliant with international doping rules. For 20 years, the BOA has maintained a bylaw that any competitor found guilty of a serious drugs offence is ineligible to represent Britain in the Olympics, and rightly so in my view.
The bylaw was passed in response to the wishes of the vast majority of British competitors, who had wanted to take part in the Games alongside clean athletes. In subsequent polls this continues to be heavily endorsed.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was originally set up in 1999 and then the Code passed four years later because there had been a lack of uniformity in sanctions. In the past, there had been appalling examples of serious positive drugs cases in a sport, notably football, resulting in players only receiving a few months suspension. WADA have pointed out that if there are "aggravating circumstances" then the period of suspension can be increased up to four years.
The International Weightlifting Federation is using a maximum penalty in all instances and athletics has registered 32 cases where an athlete has received four years.
This begs the question that if someone can be suspended for longer than two years, then surely the WADA Code should have been changed in the past to accommodate the BOA eligibility rule.
Yet most serious doping offences still carry only a two-year ban. UKAD are pushing for changes in WADA's review next year, including a debate on the best way to prosecute coaches and support staff who are caught helping athletes cheat.
But WADA are reluctant have a blanket four-year ban, as proposed by many in sport to ensure that anyone caught intentionally doping is barred for a full Olympic cycle. They fear that would be open to legal challenge as excessive and put at risk the principle that athletes bear responsibility for anything found in their system.
The two Brits most likely to be affected, sprinter Dwain Chambers (pictured) and cyclist David Millar, were both fully aware when they took performance enhancing drugs what the consequences would be if they got caught; a two-year ban and lifetime ineligibility for the Games.
Of course it could be argued that if allowed to compete for Great Britain in London they would be in good international company as there are around some 800 'convicted' drugs cheats worldwide who have done their time and are now are eligible for selection.
Not least Chambers' rival Justin Gatlin, the Athens 2004 Olympic gold medallist and current world indoor champion who has twice been banned, first in 2001 for taking amphetamines, later rescinded on appeal, and in 2006 for four years after testing positive for testosterone.
But this doesn't make it right. The BOA should be applauded for trying to stick by their principle.
They were assured by WADA as recently as March 2009 that it was compliant with the Code. However, CAS ruled last year against the IOC banning anyone guilty of a serious drugs offence from competing in the subsequent Olympics, which led to the recent hearing by CAS to re-examine the BOA bylaw to see whether it is still compliant with the Code to which it is a signatory.
BOA chairman Colin Moynihan (pictured centre) says he is "optimistic" of the outcome but this sanguinity is not shared by most legal experts because it is felt CAS will see the lifetime ban primarily as an additional sanction and not as an eligibility issue.
There is no doubt in my mind that both WADA and UKAD have shown weakness in not fully supporting the BOA and its feisty chairman Lord Moynihan, who certainly holds the moral, if not the legal high ground.
It must also be a rather embarrassing dilemma for Sir Craig Reedie, Moynihan's predecessor as BOA chairman and still a Board member who also sits on the London 2012 board, is a member of the IOC Executive Committee – and treasurer of WADA.
UKAD, who receive £7 million ($11 million/€8 million) annually in public money, seem not only out of step with those who fund them but with the man to whom they are ultimately responsible, the Sports Minister Hugh Robertson. Like London 2012 chief Lord Coe, he backs the BOA stance.
Robertson, I understand, is also keen to look at the idea of making the possession and use of steroids a criminal offence, rather than just supplying them, as in several other countries.
He says it would need a recommendation from UKAD but so far this has not been forthcoming. Making possession of anabolic steroids a crime was originally a private Members Bill brought by ex Olympian Ming Campbell (pictured) in the late 1980s. Moynihan, then Minister, also tried hard but it was blocked by the Home Office.
Yet this is not just about elite sport. This is about ordinary bodybuilders using gyms (where there is virtually no testing) and buying drugs. Often crimes of violence have been committed as a result of taking performance enhancing substances. You don't need to look at those images of the Ben Johnson of 1988 to know they how much can alter moods, making the user disturbingly aggressive.
UKAD has introduced some worthwhile initiatives, such as the investigation of who is supplying the drugs to leading competitors. However, it is failing to give the leadership to the drive to stamp out drug-taking at both elite and grassroots level, and not fully supporting the BOA at this vital time is something that should open eyes, not make them glaze over.
Alan Hubbard is an award-winning sports columnist for The Independent on Sunday, and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered a total of 16 Summer and Winter Olympics, 10 Commonwealth Games, several football World Cups and world title from Atlanta to Zaire.