Mike Rowbottom: WADA Olympic ban ruling seems curiously familiar

Friday, 01 June 2012
Mike RowbottomHistory is repeating itself in the world of sport. You would be quite wrong to call it tragedy, and harsh to call it farce. But there is, surely, a farcical element to it.

Here is the news: reports are that the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) has drawn up plans to change its rules so that doping offenders will automatically miss their next scheduled Olympics.

The new code, which is due to be approved in autumn 2013 and implemented in 2015, offers the possibility of upgrading the current standard ban for serious doping offenders from two years to four years.

Article 10.15 of the latest draft of the new WADA code states: "Where an athlete or other person has been sanctioned for an anti-doping rule violation other than under Articles 10.3.3 (Filing Failures and Missed Tests), 10.3.4 (Prohibited Association), 10.4 (Specified Substances), or 10.5.2 (No Significant Fault or Negligence), and Article 10.5.3 (Substantial Assistance) is not applicable, then, as an additional sanction, the athlete or other person shall be ineligible to participate in the next Summer Olympic Games and the next Winter Olympic Games taking place after the end of the period of ineligibility otherwise imposed."

Succinct, no. Welcome, yes.

The proposed WADA ruling is curiously similar to the position held since 1992 by the British Olympic Association (BOA), whereby serious doping offenders were prevented through a byelaw put together and implemented by athletes from ever competing for Britain again at an Olympics.

That was a position from which the BOA were obliged to retreat earlier this year, despite a huge groundswell of support in this country for the principle it enshrined. It was deemed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport to be "non-compliant" with the WADA code, in that it represented an unjustified additional sanction upon competitors who, were they living elsewhere in the world, would be free to resume their Olympic careers once they had served their mandatory doping suspensions of, typically, two years.

The proposed WADA ruling is hugely similar to the International Olympic Committee's so-called "rule 45", which was also outlawed at the Court of Arbitration for Sport last year following a challenge from the American 400 metres runner LaShawn Merritt (pictured below right).

LaShawn Merritt_and_guardsman_November_2011
The Olympic champion, who returned after his two-year ban in time to compete at last summer's IAAF World Championships in Daegu, where he won a silver medal, and who is now preparing in earnest for the London 2012 Games, argued successfully that the rule acted effectively as a second sanction - a breach of the original WADA code.

So first CAS quashed the IOC, and then it quashed the BOA. The score after full-time was 2-0 to WADA. In both cases, there was an enormous amount of debate and bother and fuss, not to mention considerable expense. Many in Britain, notably athletes and ex-athletes, were deeply distressed at what they saw as an erosion of an honourable standard in a world that was very far from uniformly honourable in the same respect.

Call me churlish, but we now seem to be in almost the same position as we were. The second sanction, so offensive last year, is now on the brink of being enshrined. An awful lot of fuss and bother so that WADA can maintain their position of "do it our way, or don't do it at all".

Doubtless those in WADA might respond: "What are you bellyaching for now? We've pretty much restored what so many people seemed to want."

Don't get me wrong. It is welcome news. But it is replicating what the IOC already had in place a year ago.

Maybe there is something intrinsically British in my curmudgeonly view of this. After all, we don't have a proper constitution, but an accretion of laws and customs. The WADA world view is the world view which has to scrap anything existing and do everything according to its own way, from scratch. Otherwise, no go.

Am I being too simplistic in wondering why, if this was what was going to happen, WADA couldn't simply have told all the campaigners who got themselves worked up over the issue in the space of the last 12 months: "Don't worry. We'll change it all back as long as it can be us doing it, not you."?

Perhaps the dynamic has been different, and there has been a permeating effect from the vocal efforts of, among others, the BOA's chairman Lord Moynihan. If he does claim any credit for the shift, it is surely well deserved.

A BOA spokesman commented: "That's an important step in the right direction, and it's moving toward reflecting the higher standard that athletes want to see."

Whatever next? A WADA life ban?

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the past five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames. Rowbottom's Twitter feed can be accessed here
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