Michael Houston

My first vivid memory of watching athletics on television was at 12 - oddly around two years after I first laced up a pair of spikes - but it was one that will stick in the mind for years to come.

I participated in Startrack, a children's athletics summer camp, when I was younger and knew the names of some of the British stars at that time who were plastered all over the walls in their Union Flags.

Kelly Sotherton, Mark Lewis-Francis, Kelly Holmes, Lee McConnell, Donna Fraser - just some of the names that I could list off but knew little about. 

Like many pre-teens at the time, it was Jamaica's Usain Bolt who turned me from a casual encyclopaedia of the sport to an avid viewer of every major competition and meeting on the television.

My athletics club had a two-night training camp for team building in nearby Largs which mainly consisted of outdoor activities like orienteering, football, training sessions and night-time entertainment like quizzes.

I am a journalist, quizzes do excite me. But the one part of the week we were not too fond of was lectures and so our coaches gave us a bargaining chip - behave and we will put the men's 100 metres final on halfway through.

Bolt had had a sensational season and was the world record-holder, taking it from team mate Asafa Powell and the pair were set for a head-to-head in the final at the Beijing 2008 Olympics.

The rest as they say, is history.

Usain Bolt was far ahead of the rest of the 100m field at Beijing 2008 ©Getty Images
Usain Bolt was far ahead of the rest of the 100m field at Beijing 2008 ©Getty Images

Bolt eased to a 9.69sec world record and the world was stunned. 

Unfortunately in the years since, we have found that many of his opponents and team mates were indeed doping.

Jamaicans Powell and Nesta Carter and American Tyson Gay were some of the most high-profile cases, joining the then-banned Justin Gatlin who became athletics' villain on his return to the sport in 2010.

Unfortunately, many of the great athletes of the late 2000s to mid-2010s have since been linked to or outright banned for anti-doping violations. 

What has been a positive for the sport is the formation of the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU), which is holding athletes to account better than the previous system, which allowed former International Association of Athletics Federations President Lamine Diack to cover up doping in exchange for bribes.

In the past few years, athletics' shameful past has been unravelling to the point where world, Olympic and continental medals are frequently being redistributed years after the fact due to the retesting of samples.

At the same time, top athletes are facing increasing anti-doping scrutiny now that the process seems to be more transparent. Sanctions appear to be  more consistent compared to the Diack days, and so some athletes find themselves caught out more than ever before - whether what they did was intentional or a mistake.

Shelby Houlihan was handed a four-year doping ban backdated to December 15, and will miss two Olympic Games ©Getty Images
Shelby Houlihan was handed a four-year doping ban backdated to December 15, and will miss two Olympic Games ©Getty Images

One of these apparent mistakes came earlier this week as the holder of the American women's 1500m and 5,000m records, Shelby Houlihan, was handed a four-year doping ban after testing positive for nandrolone. 

Houlihan claimed that this was caused by a contaminated burrito, but her appeal was rejected by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), meaning the American will now miss the Tokyo 2020 and Paris 2024 Olympics.

Now that the case has been through the AIU and CAS, it is just the latest example of an American athlete finding themselves in the line of fire over the past couple of years.

Anti-doping violations have long been associated with Russia - officially  banned from major events such as the Olympics for two years in response to a state-sponsored doping cover-up - as well as distance-running nations Kenya or Ethiopia whose dominance attracts suspicion.

Some of this is warranted as these countries do not have the same level of anti-doping sophistication that you would find in much of Western Europe, for example, but there is clearly hypocrisy across the pond in how their athletes are treated. 

When Ethiopian Gudaf Tsegay - who has not tested positive for a banned substance - set an indoor world record in the 1500m, it soon led to whispers that she must be taking performance-enhancing drugs. 

Gudaf Tsegay broke the women's 1500m world record earlier this year ©Getty Images
Gudaf Tsegay broke the women's 1500m world record earlier this year ©Getty Images

Whether it is the case or not, this standard is not held over athletes of a similar calibre from the US or Britain, like Jenny Simpson, Laura Muir or Houlihan.

This is not an accusation towards Simpson and Muir, but an acknowledgement that different athletes are treated with suspicion while others are heralded as uniquely talented.

Houlihan denied knowing what nandrolone is, which is odd, because it is one of the more common banned substances in athletics.

She joins a long list of banned American athletes including sprinters Christian Coleman, Deajah Stevens and Obi Igbokwe, Olympic hurdles champion Brianna McNeal and triple jumper Omar Craddock.

Coleman's case was particularly galling, with the 100m world champion acting as a victim for missing three tests within a 12-month period, while McNeal faces charges of tampering of doping control. 

These are not just a few minor competitors - Houlihan would have started with a chance of winning a medal at the Olympics, as would reigning champion McNeal. Coleman was supposed to be "the next big thing" after Bolt and won two gold medals at the last World Championships. Craddock marginally missed the medals at the 2015 World Championships.

Christian Coleman is set to be miss the Tokyo 2020 Olympics due to whereabouts failures ©Getty Images
Christian Coleman is set to be miss the Tokyo 2020 Olympics due to whereabouts failures ©Getty Images

If four or five high-profile Kenyans had been handed bans in such a short space of time, the country would be shrouded in a scandal.

This is not a knock on the United States Anti-Doping Agency, but a knock on how the athletics community holds such an incredibly talented nation like the US in such high regard, without questioning the athletes there.

British athletes have it drilled into them about missed tests, yet Coleman complains when he is given a ban for something within his control.

Contaminated meat should not be your go-to to prove innocence, particularly when you say you have never heard of nandrolone. 

Nandrolone is The Beatles of performance-enhancing drugs - if not, then it is at least Led Zeppelin.

The US has the anti-doping education, but it still has a serious issue with doping that is not being highlighted enough compared to nations with similar issues. In the interest of fairness, it is worth mentioning Olympic long jump champion Tianna Bartoletta slammed Coleman's attitude over his whereabouts failures and was not alone - a lax approach to doping is not systemic in the US, it is just one that festers among some of the country's brightest stars.

If we are ready to criticise Kenya or Turkey, let us send that same message to the Americans - you have some of the finest athletes in the sport, so do not tarnish that reputation.

Be held accountable.