Doping in Athletics: A Perennial Plague

A few days ago, the Jamaican sprinter Steve Mullings tested positive for a masking agent, barely two weeks before the Daegu World Athletics Championships. Mullings holds the third fastest 100m-dash time in the world this year, at 9.80s, and was expected to be amongst the top contenders for the century dash crown. A few days after, the American sprinter Mike Rodgers (fourth fastest in the 100m at 9.85s), also made the headlines for testing positive for a banned stimulant. Rodgers, according to his agent, apparently drank an energy drink containing the prohibited substance.

Doping is an ever-present threat to the credibility of elite sports, not just athletics. The aforesaid failed doping tests brought to mind the infamous Ben Johnson scandal. Who could ever forget the brooding, powerfully built Johnson? The fast-starting Jamaican-born Canadian blasted out of the blocks at the 1988 Olympic 100m dash final in a world record time of 9.79s. Johnson was disqualified days later for failing a drug test. He was stripped of his gold medal under much controversy.

In the investigation that followed, Johnson’s coach, Charlie Francis, insisted that they had been set-up. The type of steroid (stanozolol) that came out at the failed post-Olympic test wasn’t Johnson’s drug of choice (it was actually furazabol). The duo admitted to using drugs, but countered that the practice is widespread among the track & field elite.

According to a New York Times article, Francis actually tried to persuade the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the sport’s governing body, to put a stop to the doping practice in the late 1970’s. The exhortations fell on deaf ears and Francis allegedly turned to the drugs themselves to level the playing field for his athletes, said a former Canadian sports official in the aforesaid article.

Since Ben Johnson, the powers-that-be has been more vigilant in policing its ranks. But the cheaters found ways to break the rules. Through the years, the BALCO scandal tainted big names like multiple-Olympic medallist Marion Jones and her husband former 100m-dash world record holder Tim Montgomery. Weeks before the 2004 Athens Olympics, the host country’s top medal hopes, Kostas Kenteris (200m gold medallist in the Sydney Olympics) and Ekaterini Thanou faked a motorcycle accident in an effort to explain a missed drug test. Months earlier, several Indian athletes flunked doping tests administered at a training camp, casting doubts at the validity of India’s breakthrough performance in last year’s Commonwealth Games.

The Mullings case prompted the IAAF to impose mandatory drug testing for all the 2,000 athletes competing in this August’s World Championships. Amidst the renewed slew of failed tests – regardless of the reason or gravity of the offense – one bears in mind the allegations of Ben Johnson and his coach about doping being deeply ingrained.

However, drug testing has been quite stringent – among the developed countries at least. In Britain for instance, athletes are required to submit their schedule (specific to the hour) months in advance, to facilitate the random drug testing (read Tom Fordyce’s series of posts to get a clearer picture). Big names like Allyson Felix and Bryan Clay have volunteered to participate in Project Believe, where frequency of the drug testing goes beyond global accepted standard.

These draconian measures are undoubtedly hard on the elite athletes, but are a necessary step towards cleaning up the sport.

This article also appears in In The Zone

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