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Drugs in Sport II

Sebastian Coe was a cheat. He broke the rules governing athletics. That is by his own admission in his autobiography. At a time when by the code of the sport athletics was purely amateur he was taking appearance money to race at events. When he started out in athletics he could well have been banned for life, but by the time he was breaking world records the rules were being ignored by both the athletes and the governing bodies.  By taking money for competing it was argued that a competitor had an unfair advantage as they could dedicate more time to training and afford better training such as altitude training. The purity of competing in sports for the pleasure of doing so was generally upheld by the very people who were financially independent such that they didn’t need to work for a living. As long as he kept quiet about it Seb Coe was unlikely to be banned for life. But his other major concern was that by not declaring the income he was guilty of tax evasion and could face a prison sentence in the UK. As a tax fraudster after retiring from the sport he found his vocation in life as a member of the British Parliament.

At the time Sebastian Coe would have defended his actions by saying that everyone was at it. That is the very same argument used by drug cheats. So what is the difference? The difference is very simple, in order to command appearance money Coe first had to attain a standard which commanded a fee. It was the reward for good performance. Drug cheats do so to get the good performance.

I have expressed many time my hostility towards drug cheats. There have been several drug related stories in the media of late and I have been frequently asked for my views. A British documentary, Panarama, was screened earlier this year. It had a lot of allegations but no hard evidence. Eye witness accounts from anonymous sources and allegations against a British Olympic champion from more than 30 years ago. There were also allegations against Mo Farah’s coach Alberto Salazar. Although the BBC has been at pains to state that there is no evidence linking Mo Farah to drugs, it is the fact that he is Mo Farah’s coach which makes it news worthy, at least in the UK. Otherwise everyone would be saying “Who the hell is Salazar”.

Then there is the Chris Frome story. One so called expert evaluated his performance in one stage of the Tour De France and concluded that it was humanly impossible without being drugs assisted.

Now there is the story that in a database of the thousands of doping tests taken over a period of more than a decade two experts have identified suspicious trends in the results of around 20% of the athletes. However, none of the results met the criteria required to be called “Tested Positive” This story is being released by the media piecemeal to maximize the effect. A further installment this week claims that the IAAF suppressed a report by academics which claimed to show that a third of athletes were doping. This is not a new story. It is being released again to add to the news coverage

In the 2012 Olympics David Rudisha won 800m gold with a world record breaking performance. At the same Olympics Taoufik Makhloufi  won the 1500m with a stunning performance that saw him pull away from a world class field. Rudisha’s performance was met with rapturous applause and all round praise by commentators and in the media. Makhloufi’s victory was met with high skepticism and allegations of doping. In a poll on people’s perception as to whether an athlete is clean or not (http://www.letsrun.com/data/doping-perceptions-poll/),  Rudisha scores 83% clean. Given that probably 10% to 15% of the population thinks that any medal winner must be doping that is almost a perfect score. However, only 12% of respondents believe that Makhloufi is clean. Makhloufi is drug tested on average once every 12 days and like Rudisha has never failed a test. The difference in perception is because our perceptions are based on media bias.

The classic case was Lance Armstrong. The perception was that he was a clean athlete and that the allegations of doping were being propagated by a jealous French media. That’s what a lot of the world wanted to hear and that was the story spun by the media. Armstrong played along with it. People were so deceived that they even wore wrist bands in support of Lance Armstrong. There was outrage when the US anti-doping agency went after Lance Armstrong. How could they conduct a witch hunt on this hero who had recovered from cancer to win the Tour De France 7 times and had done so much for charity? Armstrong was banned from competition not for failing a drugs test, but for refusing to cooperate with investigations. His position became untenable and he came clean. But even then he made a media circus of it, confessing in a well-publicized interview on the most popular TV talk show.

Perceptions can be wrong and whilst in private we all have our own suspicions, publically athletes have the right to be regarded as clean unless they have been proved to have broken the rules. Since it is impossible for anyone to prove that they don’t dope, the obligation is on the authorities to prove guilt. I lament the current media hype which is based on speculation and hearsay.

The long list of athletes banned by the IAAF is testament in itself that they do take the situation seriously and do not shirk from taking the appropriate action. They go by the rules, not by speculation. It may seem that they have recently banned athletes in response to the media hype. It is far more likely that we are becoming more aware of the bans because of the media hype.