28 Jul Just Not British: Welsh positives show Anti-Doping still has mountain to climb

Article by James Fairbourn

And lo, it appears that British athletes are capable of failing drug tests too. This news has been very hard for many to take. There have been numerous social media proclamations that we ‘should wait for the B sample(s)’ and that Warburton and Williams are ‘innocent until proven guilty’. This is all of course very true – both athletes deny wrongdoing – as does every athlete who ever fails a drug test. The problem for the naysayers is that they are usually the same people hysterically calling for life bans when a foreign athlete gets caught. That’s all very well when you are talking about an Algerian or a Turk or a Moroccan, but when it’s one of ‘us’? Oh dear. Steve Cram was ‘sympathetic’ to Rhys Williams’ situation – it’s a shame he didn’t afford the same sympathy to the likes of Makhloufi (still yet to fail a test) when he commentated on his 1500m Olympic win in 2012.

The point of this article is not to underline the rank hypocrisy of those who are claiming that we should listen to Williams and Warburton but when Gay, Powell and Simpson put forward a startlingly similar defence we shouldn’t – I wonder if when one of the Welsh pair next races his appearance will be branded ‘controversial’ by the BBC? What these latest cases underline is the fact that the way we deal with doping is inherently broken – and the sport is actually incentivised not to fix it.

I should say first of all that I believe that the vast majority of track and field athletes are not cheating. There are rules and most stick to them. However, I also believe that if the general public were aware of the amount of substances that pulse the veins of our top stars they would be quite shocked. I have written at length about therapeutic use exemption (TUE) and I have written about supplementation in the past. It is ridiculous for fans of ‘clean sport’ to say that they are after ‘purity’ as they tuck into the recovery shake handed to them by the British Athletics physiologist after a race.

The sport is far too liberal in its attitude to stimulants and other ‘legal’ drugs. It seems likely that Warburton and Williams have fallen foul of a dodgy batch of a nutritional supplement. This prompts them both to affirm that they are committed to clean competition whilst then pointing to the powder they thought was legal in mitigation. They aren’t committed to clean sport – no one is – they are committed to playing by the rules. And those rules are increasingly grey. I personally don’t think they have a defence – they took something. It contained a banned substance. They are guilty. The rules are really quite clear on this – the athlete is responsible. However, should they be treated in the same way as a cyclist who systematically blood doped for 5 years? Those advocating life bans believe that they should be.

The problems with banning all supplementation and all TUEs (as I have argued for in the past) are multiple. As Sir Matthew Pinsent pointed out, such an approach would preclude the likes of Sir Steve Redgrave from taking part in any sport. The issue with banning supplements is more of a commercial one – they play such a huge role in the performances that we see that such impressive performances (that crowds come to see and viewers tune in to watch) would decline in frequency or disappear completely.

The best compromise would be for it to be mandatory for athletes to publish a list of everything that they take. Much in the way that MPs are forced to reveal all the extra income they get from outside Westminster, athletes should tell everyone what extra help they get. They can justify it on their websites if they wish, but the public should know what the truth is. For someone like Sir Steve (who has suffered from diabetes his whole life) this would not be an issue. For someone who has recently been ‘diagnosed’ with a thyroid complaint or exercise induced asthma, this may be a little more embarrassing.

The next big issue is punishments for the miscreants. Simply banning all offenders for life is the equivalent of dealing with all criminals in exactly the same way. Each case has its nuisances – its mitigating and aggravating factors. An International Court of Anti-Doping should be set up and, when an athlete is charged with an offence, their case must be heard. Any panel would naturally have to include sports lawyers and administrators, but I also think there should be representation from current athletes. Much in the way that every member of the public can be compelled to jury service, so should every athlete who subscribes to Anti-Doping be made available to sit in judgment here. This makes the entire process so much more transparent – transcripts can be made available for public consumption and, agree or disagree; we will know why an athlete has been punished in this way.

That deals with the athlete. However, it is foolish not to examine how the drugs got there in the first place. Failed tests should trigger immediate investigations into the coaching and sport science set-ups for the athlete. Is this a rogue athlete or is this an issue inherent in his/her training group or in his/her country? If so, coaches can also be called before the anti-doping court – as can Performance Directors and entire National Governing Bodies. Root it out; find out how it happened and make sure systems are put in place to make sure it can’t happen again.

It’s a shame we have to have this system at all really. It’s a shame that British Athletics are so obsessed with elite performance that they plough more much energy into giving our team the sport science edge, rather than trying to develop the grassroots of the sport. They have abjectly failed in building on all the advantages afforded to them by the feel-good factor of 2012 by focusing so exclusively on the top talent. What is Alberto Salazar going to do for the 15 year-old who hopes to go to the Olympics? What is he going to teach the volunteer coaches who give up hour after hour of their time for free? Nothing. British Athletics are going to take them away, ‘develop’ them, grant them access to thousands of pounds worth of sports medicine. And if they fail, dump them as quickly as they picked them up.

Some will say that that is ‘just sport’. Maybe they are right. But all the time we are so obsessed with elite performance, don’t be surprised when some athletes fall afoul of the ever-changing doping line. Without professional support, it’s almost impossible to keep up anymore.

Image from Twitter (@WalesOnline)

  • Rob

    Great article James. Athletes need to take accountability for the supplements they ingest.