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Drugs in Sport

Last week I wrote about my frustration at media reports based on unsupported allegations, hearsay, personal interpretations etc. That shouldn’t be taken to mean that I don’t think that there is a problem. There is a problem and it’s a huge problem. The facts are bad enough. 4 of the athletes who lined up for the 100 m final at the world championships have served suspensions for doping in the past. If you believe that the drug testing regime has less than a 50% chance of catching a cheat then there has to be a case for assuming that the remaining 5 runners may be taking drugs but have yet to be caught. It is very depressing. So what do we need? Better testing? More regulations? Better leadership? More transparency? Better governance?

One of my favorite authors on the subject of leadership is Malcolm Gladwell. In his book “The Tipping Point” he describes how human behavior is modified by the culture of the environment a person finds themselves in. The best example is smoking. At one extreme there are addicts who love smoking. At the opposite extreme there are people who can’t stand smoking. In the middle there may be people who like to smoke but are not addicted and people who don’t really enjoy smoking but will participate in a social setting. We all fit in somewhere on the scale and the degree to which you do or don’t enjoy smoking is genetic. However, whether you do actually smoke or not, has more to do with the surrounding culture. If smoking is a social norm then those in the middle of the scale will tend to smoke. If smoking is not the social norm they will not. Public opinion in many countries in the world has lead to smoking bans in public areas the place of work. 30 years ago such a ban would have seemed impossible, but public opinion gathered momentum to the point where a tipping point was reached.

As I explained last year, the whole business of international athletics depends on interests which actually encourage doping. Event managers need sponsors. To get sponsors they need television exposure. To get television exposure they need great performances, which also need money. Great performances, world records etc often come from drug cheats. Nobody in the system, coaches, athletes, sponsors, event managers, television channels, managers and the like have anything to be gained financially by catching drug cheats. What is needed is cultural change and that needs leadership.

The new head of IAAF is Sebastian Coe, elected a couple of weeks ago. I cannot think of a person whose credentials for the job are better than his. He set many world records. He won two gold and two silver Olympic medals at 800m and 1500m. He was responsible for cleaning up athletics laws with respect to athletes being paid for participation. He was head of the team which won the Olympic bid for the London Olympics and also headed the team which delivered the games.  He was a member of the British Parliament and is currently a member of the House of Lords. He served as press secretary to the Leader of the Conservative party, William Haig. He has expressed very strongly his own contempt for those who cheat. He has the leadership skills to change the culture to adhering to the rules. He has the ability to find pragmatic solutions to achieve those objectives. He is beyond corruption. He is very highly respected.

Culture change is the key and it applies to us too. When Greg Rutherford won gold in the long jump at the London Olympics his performance was ridiculed. It was the shortest winning jump for 40 years and certainly not worthy of an Olympic title. Or perhaps, he was the first clean athlete to win the long jump in 40 years. Greg went on to win the European athletics championships, Commonwealth Games and this week the World Championships. A feat only matched by 4 other athletes in history. If we want the sport to be clean we must get used to the idea that performances not enhanced by drugs will fall short of previous standards.

What would I like to see happen? Well here are a few pointers.

Drug testing, interpretation of results and suspension of athletes should be undertaken by an independent authority. The IAAF is compromised by self interest.

Those caught cheating should be subject to criminal law as is the case of a financial trader found guilty of insider dealing. Custodian sentences should be applied, not just to athletes but to coaches, promoters, sponsors and anyone guilty of turning a blind eye to drug cheats.

Drug cheats must be banned for life. The penalty has to be so extreme that the risk isn’t worth taking.

And it needs to be brought right down to our level! It’s too easy to get enhancement drugs. You all know my performances and you know that I don’t have anything in my physique which would suggest that I have been bulked up on steroids. Unfortunately that is not the case for some of the runners I see in the Emirates.

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