The Tokyo 2020 Olympics have not yet moved centre stage for anyone other than the 11,000 or so athletes who hope to compete in one of 339 events. Nevertheless, the games are under an ever more toxic cloud because of the performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) plague. The Olympics’ credibility crisis is so great that any successful athlete, even if innocent, will be a PEDs suspect. The medal podium is now more courtroom dock than unquestionable pinnacle. In an effort, a laughably ineffective one, to confront this cancer, the International Olympic Council (IOC) has stripped 140 dope cheats of medals. The majority have been stripped since 2000 and the greatest number — 48, including 18 golds — were stripped in athletics. The country with the worst record is Russia (or Russian associates) with 44, four times the number of the second worst offender and more than 30% of the total.
Russia’s contempt for sport and its athletes’ well-being was highlighted this week when the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) confirmed it had not got doping data from Moscow by a December deadline. Wada was humiliated when a demand, set when it foolishly lifted a three-year suspension on the Russian anti-doping agency, was ignored. That roll-over provoked anger and Sport Ireland chief executive and Olympic medallist John Treacy expressed some of it when he criticised IOC president Thomas Bach who signalled that Russia will not be banned from Tokyo. Treacy, echoing sentiments like those directed towards Fifa’s Sepp Blatter in the twilight of his colourful career, said Bach’s remarks are “deeply unhelpful” and that the IOC is “out of touch”.
Bach’s remarks come a year after the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics when the IOC decided to bar Russia but wilted and invited 169 athletes to compete as “Olympic athletes from Russia”. In 2016, Wada called for Russia to be barred from the Rio de Janeiro games. The IOC disqualified a third of the team but the rest competed under the Russian flag.
The closer-to-home consequences of this plague were highlighted this week when Ronan O’Gara wrote in these pages about the possibility that Munster might face former teammate and PED cheat Gerbrandt Grobler when they play Gloucester next Saturday. Grobler’s two-year suspension ended in October 2016. He is not by any means rugby’s only drug cheat, but in the context of an increasingly brutal, concussion-ridden sport, it is time to review the drug rules’ inadequate protections. Unlike runners or weightlifters, whose misuse of PEDs harms no-one but themselves, rugby players using PEDs do so, and there is no avuncular, alickadoo way to say this, to weaponise their bodies. They use banned chemicals to subdue opponents in an often too-violent way. Last year, three young French players, aged 17, 18, and 21, died because of rugby collisions. Premature retirement because of injury has become almost everyday. O’Gara is right: A lifetime ban for rugby’s PED offenders is required. The game’s rule-makers need to act urgently and be far more assertive than the increasingly-suspect and inept IOC.
A permanent ban for any player identified as a drug cheat at October’s Rugby World Cup in Japan would be a good start.