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The art of opening a can of worms

Congratulations are due to The Sunday Times for its revelations at the weekend about the widespread degree of performance-enhancing drug-taking within elite athletics (or ‘track and field’ as our American cousins style it).

According the allegations, set out over several pages in the edition of Sunday 2nd August, details of over 12,000 blood tests taken upon 5,000 athletes over the past decade and more held by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) were leaked by a whistleblower to German broadcaster ARD/WDR.

The Sunday Times took copies to two leading anti-doping experts (scientist Robin Parisotto and exercise physiologist Michael Ashenden) who concluded that one-third of all medals, including 55 golds, awarded at recent Olympics and World Championships had been won by athletes who posted ‘suspicious’ tests. Whilst for legal reasons it has been stressed that ‘suspicious’ test results are not in themselves proof of the deliberate taking of performing-enhancing drugs, the bare facts of the test results – and the attendant excessive unlikelihood that such results could have occurred naturally in the bodies of either male or female athletes – were ‘slam dunk’ damning in the eyes of this observer.

The IAAF now faces scrutiny and humiliation on two counts. Firstly, the inescapable  implication that it has been holding this depressing evidence, in some cases for over fifteen years, without ever taking any action upon it. Secondly, as late as last Friday (31st July), it was actively engaged in prospective legal action to attempt to gain an injunction against The Sunday Times to prevent it publishing the results of its investigation on the (pathetic in my personal view) grounds that it had illegally gained ‘confidential’ data.

The IAAF’s approach regarding both its inactivity over the test results and its attempt to ‘close down’ a potentially damaging ‘public relations’ situation by injunction speaks volumes.

Needless to say, Russia and Kenya – and other familiar ‘usual suspects’ – feature large in a descending scale of nations whose athletes have produced ‘suspicious’ tests. Lest anyone think solely in terms of ‘them and us’, some worrying tests were registered against athletes from most leading countries including Britain.

Thankfully the likes of Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis-Hill were specifically stated not to be amongst the Brits producing iffy results.

To be fair, The Sunday Times suggested yesterday that just eight British athletes of all those tested had done so.

One example of Brit ‘rogue’ results in particular looked several degrees more serious than the others and, though not naming the athlete concerned, the newspaper described that person as a ‘leading international’ and stated that recently its reporters had met with him (or her) to discuss the issues.

In that meeting the athlete concerned had strenuously denied any wrongdoing and also threatened to take legal action to the Nth degree in the event that they were identified. It should be added here that The Sunday Times was very careful not to identify either the athlete, or his or her gender in case doing so had given a clear indication (even via omission, implication or reader-deduction) of who this might be. They referred to the athlete as ‘they’ throughout the piece.

As is well known, the Rust takes a hard line on performance-enhancing drug-taking in sport, regularly taking opportunities to bring instances and opinion pieces on the subject to our readers’ attention.

Because of sad historic patterns of abuse both drugs and the rules relating to them, the sports of professional cycling and athletics are often criticised for their records in dealing with the problem.

All I would add here is that – as regards this latest IAAF scandal – surely it cannot be beyond the wit of man, or indeed the relevant authorities, to devise and implement a ‘latest and toughest possible’ drug-testing regime procedure which all athletes about to take part in major events like the Olympics and Word Championships are absolutely required to undergo – say as late as just three days in advance of their beginning – before being allowed to participate?

And then implement a policy that any athlete whose test results come back above a certain threshold of ‘suspicion’ factor is automatically excluded from participating in those Games.

[Nobody who has read the exposure by The Sunday Times at the weekend could be in any doubt that the combination of errant results on the scientific tests used and the minute likelihood that those which on the face of it return ‘outside the norm’ could have occurred naturally, would not be a fair bar to set.]

Once any ‘suspect’ test results are in, there would be no suggestion made that the athletes concerned are ‘drugs takers’, or deserve to be branded as such … or indeed anything else … for having registered test results as they did. Rather there would simply an absolute (strict liability) rule that anyone whose results exceed the given threshold cannot take part in the Games about to take place.

What would be so difficult about implementing such a scheme?




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About Natalie Sampson

Writing under a pen-name for reasons of security, Natalie is a senior executive in the advertising industry. More Posts