10 Dec From Russia with love: why 2014 could be the beginning of the end for athletics
By James Fairbourn
2014 has been a quiet year for global athletics. Save the comparatively minor Commonwealth Games and European Athletics Championships, it was a year when the sport’s major stars could put their feet up, try something new, have children or get married. However, behind the scenes, a gathering momentum might just make it the most significant year in the history of the sport. This was the year when it all started to unravel.
The as yet unverified (though that is probably journalism speak for ‘gutted we didn’t get this scoop first’) claims made by a German documentary have prompted the usual nauseating ‘shock’ from the British establishment. It is almost as if British Athletics have an on-call rota of stars past and present ready to go at a moment’s notice to be outraged next to some equally outraged presenter on a BBC radio station. Perhaps there are ‘template Tweets’ ready to be sent out immediately following a revelation of foreign wrongdoing?
Lord Coe has – perhaps a little reluctantly – also been thrust into this great debate owing to his ambitions for IAAF presidency next year. Happily, whilst grades of horror tend to be determined by the journalist leading the interview, everyone is able to agree that this just isn’t something that a British athlete could ever get involved with and that Russia should be excluded from all competitive activity for an eternity.
In reality, the likelihood of this being a ‘rogue’ nation is about as likely as a World Junior Champion suddenly being diagnosed with exercise induced asthma (what? That actually happened? Wow. Now that is something).
Lord Coe was able to be certain that such practice was ‘not endemic’ in the wider sport and that the damage was being done by ‘a small number of countries’. As more and more revelations come out of the German investigation, that claim is starting to look a little tenuous – now it seems that at least one Briton will be implicated alongside others from Germany, Kenya, Morocco and Spain. It is ludicrous to suggest that such corruption couldn’t permeate through to the vast majority of competing nations. Particularly given the international nature of sport nowadays – very few athletes train exclusively in their homeland.
Lord Coe’s suggestion for dealing with this mess is to test more vigorously and independently of home federations. Many others think that it would all be sorted if only we could ban dopers for life. Neither of these suggestions would work. One needs only a rudimentary knowledge of performance enhancing drugs and those who use them (I suggest reading Tyler Hamilton’s The Secret Race for a thorough account) to know that dopers are so far ahead of testers now that it is virtually worthless testing them.
When you think about the majority of major ‘busts’ in the past few years, they have been caught using drugs they thought were legal (i.e. no effort was made to hide them from the testers and they were effectively caught by default). The concept of banning those caught for life is riddled with legal issues and, above all, isn’t the deterrent you would think it to be. Hamilton’s account (albeit of an audacious Lance Armstrong supported drug ring) makes it clear that these guys thought it impossible that they be caught. Teams of investigators examining these cases in the way they would a crime, with drug testing only one facet of the investigation is the only way forward. Marion Jones wasn’t caught by testing and ultimately, neither was Armstrong (although both did fail tests). Drug tests are effective up to a point, but we are way beyond that now.
The next big scandal (quite likely off the back of this one) in athletics is the widespread use of doctor’s notes to circumvent WADA’s list of banned substances. These are quite clear-cut breaches of the WADA code and – in this scribe’s opinion – amount to as much culpability as any other doping offence. Doctors need to start having their license to practice medicine put under threat for not asking enough questions and signing the chit.
We aren’t just talking about rules of competition here; we simply do not know how much harm is being done by these powerful medicines used in perfectly healthy individuals. The hypocrisy of an athlete being appalled by the Russians whilst a dose of levothyroxine pulses the veins is breathtaking almost beyond belief. As I (and countless others) have said before, athletes should be forced to declare what they are taking to the general public. Alas, the majority of those not intimately involved with the sport are still of the belief that a ‘clean’ athlete gets by on a glass of orange juice and half a broccoli.
In recent days, anyone who is anyone has raced to call for full and speedy investigations into what went wrong in Russia. They should be careful what they wish for; else 2014 will be remembered as the year of Armageddon for the credibility of global track and field.