The IAAF recently announced that they are doubling the suspension for a failed drugs test from two years to four years. It is a welcome move. But will other sports follow Athletics’ lead? Recent high profile drugs revelations have lead me and millions of other sport lovers to question the integrity of competitive sport. The public have been deceived so many times by cheats and cover-ups that patience is wearing thin. Sports across the board need to get their act together and tackle this cancer head-on and with zero tolerance.
The reality is that almost every major sport is tainted by drugs to some extent; to think otherwise would be highly naïve (motor-racing is the only sport in my mind that is relatively drug-free). In disciplines such as Athletics, Boxing and Cycling, drugs have been prevalent for almost a century (the following Wikipedia article makes for depressing reading: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doping_at_the_Tour_de_France) but in other sports it is only becoming more widely understood. Cricket and Football have historically had relatively drug free existences but with the rewards so great in both sports these days, drugs are a real concern. Where there is money to be made, the temptation to use drugs, and the people willing to supply them, will always be there.
The sport with the largest connection to drugs is Cycling. Since 1969, only seven winners of the great race have never been tainted or connected to drugs in their careers. That means, on average, one in every six winners of the Tour did so riding clean. It is a horrifying statistic but it is not all doom and gloom. The last three winners, Chris Froome, Bradley Wiggins and Cadel Evans have never failed a drugs test. Cycling needed to go through the dark time in the late 90’s and early 2000’s to get where it is today. In a way, the fact that so many cyclists returned positive tests meant that the cheats were getting caught and the wider public started to take notice. The sport had to clear up its act otherwise it faced fading into anonymity. However damaging the past scandals may have been and after years of sweeping cases under the carpet, it has helped shaped a healthier and hopefully drugs-free future for cycling. (For those interested in cycling’s shady past, read Tyler Hamilton’s autobiography The Secret Race)
The same cannot be said for Athletics. The two positive drugs tests recently returned by star sprinters Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay were a real blow to a sport which has been plagued for years by such scandals. During the Cold War, communist countries, such as the U.S.S.R and East Germany, systematically doped a large majority of their athletes (especially women) to win major sporting titles. This was seen as an attempt to legitimise their totalitarian regimes not only to the outside world but also to their own people. Ironically, Russia has over 40 high profile athletes suspended for positive drug tests today. The sport was particularly shady in the 80’s and 90’s and not only in the Eastern-bloc. There has always been doubt cast over Carl Lewis, with strong rumours that a positive drugs test was covered up by the authorities. Florence Griffith Joyner, still the holder of both the women’s 100m and 200m world records, mysteriously lowered her personal bests in both events by half a second in 1988. And lest we forget, our very own Linford Christie failed a drugs test in both 1988 and 1999. More recently, American sprinter Justin Gatlin (who has failed two drugs tests in his career, yet mysteriously is still allowed to compete) and 400m runner Lashawn Merritt (who claimed his performance-enhancing drug was for use in the bedroom) have successfully returned to the sport after their respective suspensions. This riles me a lot given that clean athletes are being denied their just deserts (earnings and medals) because of a cheat. A convicted drug-taker should not be allowed to continue to earn a living from sport after making a decision to defame that same sport in such a shameful manner.
The Balco scandal was probably the most infamous in all Athletics history. It came to light that its founder, Victor Conte, had been supplying steroids and growth hormone to athletes across numerous sports, the most high profile of which were sprinters Tim Montgomery (at the time the 100m world record holder), Marion Jones and Dwain Chambers, baseball legend Barry Bonds, and boxer Shane Mosley. The worrying thing about the Gay-Powell saga is that they had no excuses. Tyson Gay effectively admitted that he had taken drugs by stating ‘I don’t have a sabotage story… I basically put my trust in someone and was let down. I know exactly what went on, but I can’t discuss it right now.’ If athletes don’t know themselves precisely what they are putting into their bodies then they can have no excuse. Putting your trust in another person is a risk that in this case backfired spectacularly. I don’t think Tyson Gay is the type of man to wilfully gain an advantage through illegal means, but he has been naïve in his choice of advisors. Knowing or unknowing, a positive drugs is still cheating and Gay and Powell deserve the sanctions they receive.
It is perhaps easy to see how performance-enhancing drugs directly benefit stamina and power-based sports. However, can such a skilled sport such as football profit from banned substanes? The very successful Juventus team of the mid-90’s was systematically doped (without the players knowledge apparently) with the blood-boosting hormone EPO (common amongst cyclists at the time as it allowed one to ride at a higher intensity for longer). Dutch players Jaap Stam, Edgar Davids and Frank De Boer all tested positive for nandrolone (which promotes artificial muscle growth and red blood-cell stimulation) in 2001. The most heralded football coach in the world, Pep Guardiola, failed a drugs test for nandrolone in that same year. New Liverpool signing Kolo Toure tested positive for a slimming aid in 2011 and Rio Ferdinand was suspended for 8 months in 2004 for missing a drugs test, although that was more dopey than doping. In his compelling autobiography, Tony Cascarino revealed that he was injected with what club doctors called ‘vitamins’ and ‘minerals’ in his spell at Marseille in the early 90’s (Marseille weren’t exactly strangers to controversy after the match-fixing scandal in 1993). I am slightly worried that football doesn’t currently do blood tests. Urine samples have to be given by randomly selected players after every game but blood samples are not mandatory. A blood test is a much more thorough way of detecting illicit substances in an athletes’ body. Sports like Cycling and Athletics have gone so far as to set up a blood passport system (anti-doping agencies can check samples against each other to spot irregularities). Football needs to act fast otherwise the situation risks getting out of hand. A drug such as EPO can increase stamina and intensity by up to 20%, so not only can players play for longer, they can train harder too. Yes it could result in some embarrassing findings but for the sake of the game, it is imperative.
Even more worrying for football is the links it has to the Operation Puerto scandal in Spain. Doctor Eufemiano Fuentes provided numerous athletes, mainly cyclists but also footballers with performance-enhancing drugs (including testosterone pills) and blood doping. There are rumours that he supplied seasonal plans for Real Madrid and Barcelona, and also assisted Real Sociedad in systemised blood doping. If this isn’t evidence enough that blood testing is required then I don’t know what is. What is most ridiculous of all is that the judge presiding over the whole Fuentes case ruled that the blood bags should be destroyed. This is evidence that could be vital in catching not only dopers of the past but drug cheats of the future. It seems the Spanish authorities are desperate to cover up this humiliation. They obviously have something to hide.
Another sport that was named in Operation Puerto was tennis. It is rumoured that Fuentes worked with many tennis players, including the Spanish Davis Cup team, bafflingly the most successful nation during the 2000’s in the competition. Tennis, like football, requires high levels of not only skill but also fitness. That small advantage that blood-doping can give you makes a sizeable difference at a professional level. With tennis becoming so athletic it is no wonder stories of doping are abound. Remember the likes of Boris Becker, Tim Henman, Andre Agassi? All very fit guys in their own right, but compare their physique to modern day players like Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Tomas Berdych. I’m not saying these players are doping, it’s just the physicality of the sport has got that much more intense that you have to be in top shape to even compete with the top players. Agassi had his own well-documented troubles with recreational drugs but recently top-100 ranked player (not for long) Victor Troicki has been slapped with an 18-month ban for failing to provide a blood sample. A week after that, world number 15, Maran Cilic, was banned for a positive test. Richard Gasquet has also been nabbed but this was for cocaine use, which he claimed was via kissing a girl who had just taken some. Encouragingly, tennis is pressing ahead with plans to introduce blood passports which should help catch potential drug cheats.
Cricket is a sport that one wouldn’t usually connect with performance-enhancing drugs. It has had its problems in the past with recreational drugs. Ian Botham, Keith Piper, Ed Giddins, Dermot Reeve, Phil Tufnell, Graham Wagg and tragically, Tom Maynard have all been found to have taken recreational substances at some point in their careers. But taking drugs to improve say one’s strength to hit the ball further wouldn’t necessarily be an advantage in cricket. Timing is much more important than brute strength, though I dare say it couldn’t do any harm. However, players have been known to take drugs to aid injury recovery. The injury-prone Pakistani fast bowlers, Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif both failed tests for nandrolone in 2006 and were handed bans which were later overturned on appeal. Asif claimed his was due to a faulty nutritional supplement. He later failed a test in the IPL for steroids in 2008 and also was detained at Dubai airport that same year for possessing illegal substances – all apparently linked to injury recovery. Sri Lankan batsman Upul Tharanga was handed a three-month ban in 2011 for a banned steroid which he claimed it was an herbal remedy for a shoulder injury. The legendary rotund Australian text messager Shane Warne infamously missed the 2003 World Cup for taking a banned diuretic (allegedly one of his mother’s slimming pills – a believable argument). With the increasing riches on offer to players, cricket needs to be more vigilant in its approach to drug-testing. The rewards are so great and the sanctions relatively minor that one or two players are going to be tempted to take short-cuts. The IPL is especially vulnerable in this respect. Indeed, young Indian fast bowler Pradeep Sangwan returned a positive drugs test for steroids in this year’s IPL.
Golf is another sport which has links to drugs and injury recovery. Fijian Vijay Singh admitted using deer-antler spray, a banned growth-hormone on the World Anit-Doping Agency’s (WADA) list, but was acquitted after it was revealed that it wasn’t taken in sufficient enough quantities to enhance performance. Tiger Woods was linked to controversial doctor Tony Galea during his recovery from knee-ligament surgery in 2008-9. Galea had links to the Balco scandal and Victor Conte having been involved in both Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery. Galea’s method involved taking blood from Woods, placing it in a centrifuge to increase red platelets (don’t ask), and injecting it back into the affected ligament, thus speeding up the healing process. To me, this is no different from blood doping that cyclists used – surely artificially increasing the body’s red platelets is the same as artificially increasing the body’s red blood cells and oxygen capability. The rules have tightened since 2010 on the procedure but I believe it still remains legal. Now I’m not suggesting that Woods is a drugs cheat, but having links to a man who is known to be involved with Conte and human-growth hormone is a bit fishy.
The ultimate skill sport, snooker is not exempt from drugs. Bill Werbenuik took beta blockers in the 1980’s to slow his heart rate when at the table and Neal Foulds also admitted to having taken a similar substance. It is doubtful whether this would have a positive effect on performance but if a player suffers from nerves, it could be beneficial. Recreational substances have long been associated with snooker: Kirk Stevens was known to have taken cocaine and Ronnie O’Sullivan was disqualified from a tournament in the 90’s for testing positive for cannabis. Jimmy White and Alex Higgins were also no strangers to drug scandals during their careers.
Rugby League recently found itself at the centre of a drugs scandal in Australia where six clubs have been implicated in doping thought to include AFL too. There has been little information since the report in February but rumours are surfacing that supplements (mainly muscle growth-hormone) were administered by the clubs, not by the odd rogue player himself, which is more worrying. AFL player Jobe Watson has admitted that he took a banned anti-obesity drug but only after signing a consent form provided by his club. (http://theconversation.com/essendon-scandal-a-symptom-of-australias-sporting-woes-12085). This whole affair draws parallels with the Festina affair during the Tour de France in 1998, where drugs were found in the Festina team car, and subsequently numerous teams were under suspicion of providing illegal substances for their riders. Closer to home, Bradford Bulls star Terry Newton was banned for two years for taking Human Growth Hormone. Martin Gleeson also received a ban for a failed drugs test in 2011. One can see the benefits of taking these sorts of drugs in sports like rugby where power and size are central factors. Recreational drugs are also not uncommon – Australian Rugby League Star Wendell Sailor tested positive for cocaine in 2006, as did new Salford Red Devils forward Gareth Hock in 2009 whilst playing for Wigan Warriors.
Rugby Union is no stranger to drug scandals either. 2009 was a dark year for Bath Rugby Club in particular as their England prop Matt Stevens received a two year ban after failing a drugs test. He later admitted to having taken cocaine on more than one occasion and confessed that he found it almost a relief that he had been caught. Later that year, after an end-of-season party, four Bath players were embroiled in a scandal after allegations of cocaine abuse. (http://www.rugbydump.com/2009/07/1023/the-ins-and-outs-of-the-bath-drugs-scandal). Their Australian lock, Justin Harrison confessed and was handed an 8 month ban whilst the other three, co-captains Michael Lipman and Alex Crockett and Andrew Higgins all resigned after refusing to give samples. However it is very rare that a Rugby Union player is found to have taken performance enhancing drugs which for the sport is a saving grace (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/rugby-union/24626491).
Boxing is a shady sport that has had all manner of problems in the past and drugs are just one of the many issues facing it today. It has a fairly lackadaisical attitude towards drug testing which it needs to rectify pretty quickly if it is to retain any credibility. Recent scandals have included Lamont Peterson’s positive test for synthetic testosterone in 2011 which he failed in the lead up to his victory against Amir Khan. Wrangling over drug testing scuppered plans for a ‘super-fight’ between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr in 2010 after negotiations over blood-testing failed to reach a conclusion. Boxing doesn’t have a fixed set of anti-doping criteria which immediately sets the alarm bells ringing. The drug-testing is not determined by a central body but is instead agreed between the two fighters themselves. Legendary Mexican Juan-Manuel Marquez, before his sixth-round knockout of Manny Pacquiao last year, started to work with a less than reputable ‘conditioning coach’ Angel Hernandez, who has links to BALCO and Victor Conte (http://globalnation.inquirer.net/62195/did-drugs-nearly-kill-pacquiao). Marquez’s physique was visibly more chiselled than at any point in his career and in his previous three meetings with Pacquiao, he had failed to knock down the Filipino. Yet he put him on the canvas in round 3 and knocked him out cold in round 6 to record his first victory against his nemesis. Worryingly, no drug testing of any sort was done pre-fight to either boxer. In his most recent fight (which he lost to Timothy Bradley) Marquez caused controversy again by reneging on a pre-fight drug-testing deal (http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/boxing/2013/10/08/drug-testing-rift-tim-bradley-juan-manuel-marquez-fight-is-on/2948991/).
With the rewards on offer and the relatively minor sanctions, performance-enhancing drugs are an attractive proposition to sportsmen and women. The only logical conclusion is to introduce a zero-tolerance policy of life bans for any convicted drugs cheat. In the case of recreational drugs, a less hard-line approach would suffice given that often there are deep-set emotional reasons for such substance abuse. There is a worrying trend in certain countries of drug-taking getting out of control. During and after the 2010 Commonwealth Games, Indian athletes returned a disproportionate amount of positive drugs tests; similarly, Russia has over 40 suspended Athletes at the present time. Chinese, Turkish and Greek authorities all have major problems with doping. China in particular seems to have a particular problem with Swimming and Weightlifting. There is a disturbing situation arising in Jamaican athletics where alongside Powell, two other high profile female sprinters, Sherone Simpson and double 200m Olympic Gold medallist Veronica Campbell-Brown, have returned positive drugs results amid claims that testing has been few and far between (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/athletics/24517780). The worry is that the testers are always playing catch-up with the takers. The introduction of blood passports is a big step in the right direction but until all governing bodies across all sports make it a top priority, the situation is not going to improve.
I love sport. When I was younger I would marvel at the seemingly super-human abilities of professional athletes on TV and wish I could do what they could. The concept of someone achieving something by artificial means never enters a child’s head. I suppose the first time I really took interest in a drugs scandal was Dwain Chambers’ positive test in 2003. I couldn’t believe that an English sprinter would do such a thing. I mean it is so un-English. When Chambers pleaded guilty a little bit of me died inside. I naively assumed that illegal narcotics were consigned to Athletics only. Then the world of cycling was turned upside down after Floyd Landis’ positive test after his Tour de France ‘victory’ in 2006. Again, I assumed it was an isolated case limited to a minor sport. Yet, when the recent Lance Armstrong scandal reared its ugly head, I slowly started to realise that one should not take every amazing performance, every world-record, every breath-taking sporting moment at face value – and that is really sad. I now have a slightly cynical view of the sporting world thanks to those athletes who decided to take the short-cut, the easy way, the cheater’s route to success. I still love sport and I still marvel at sporting prowess but now, at the back of my mind, there is always some doubt.
This Wikipedia article makes for rather disheartening reading: