The world of athletics has found itself in a precarious position. During the outdoor season, I had a sense there was an elephant in the room and wondered at what point is it going to be discussed, writes Derval O'Rourke.
That point came when the IAAF, the international governing body, announced its list of candidates for the accolade of World Athlete of the Year, featuring twice convicted doping cheat Justin Gatlin.
In response, German discus thrower Robert Harting, also nominated after a stellar year, requested to have his nomination removed from the list. He didn’t want to stand alongside a known two-time doping offender.
It was a big statement by Harting. A principled stand against doping that deserves a lot of respect. During my time on the athletics circuit, I heard various discussions between clean athletes about those who doped but the clean athletes rarely come out so publicly. Like many things in life, lots of people are willing to rant behind closed doors but few actually stick their neck out for their principles.
In some respects, the sport is weighted against clean athletes. One of the hardest parts of the sport for me to stomach is the length of doping bans, which range from a few months up to two years, although in January 2015 there will be a four-year option for authorities. A clean athlete that has a serious injury could face up to two years in recovery time or in the worst scenario, some clean athletes never return from injury.
Throughout my career, I had injuries, often as a result of training strain. One of the many reasons that people take drugs is recovery from training. It’s a catch 22 situation trying to be a world beater on the track. If you train too hard, your body doesn’t recover sufficiently and if you don’t train hard enough, you will never perform at a world-class level. Throughout my years training, I was walking the tightrope between being in world class racing shape and being injured.
Upon my return to the racing circuit after an injury, I would struggle to get a lane in the best meets. These are the meets with the fastest athletes and the best prize money. The reason I wouldn’t be given a lane was, quite simply, my form wasn’t fast enough yet. There were many girls with faster times to fill the lanes. My returns to racing post-injury always took time, meaning that my opportunity to race the best girls and earn good money was quite limited.
One of the most frustrating aspects was seeing athletes return from doping bans and getting lanes in the best meets. Returning from a doping ban isn’t like returning from an injury. Your body is fresh and hasn’t had to endure the endless rehab of the injured clean athlete. An athlete that has to sit out a period of time for a doping offence often comes back in great form and gains access to the big meets, while clean athletes may take much longer to return to that level.
The current rules dictate that athletes are allowed a second chance once they return to the track. In Gatlin’s case, it’s a third chance after two doping convictions. In the same week the IAAF nominated Gatlin as one of their potential athletes of the year, the University of Oslo were discussing their findings about the long-term potential benefits performance-enhancing drugs may have.
It doesn’t take a genius to wonder whether or not the benefits of a drugs programme last longer than the time a cheating athlete has to spend on the sidelines but the research coming out of Oslo could be a step towards proving this. The lab dosed mice with testosterone and analysed the results. Three months after the drug had been stopped, which is approximately 15% of a mouse life span, the juiced-up super mice showed that with loaded exercise, their muscle mass still increased by 30%. The mice that were not given drugs did not show any significant muscle gain.
Basically the super-drugged cheater mice still gained from their drugs long after the drugs stopped but the clean mice didn’t gain anything.
This research suggests that even a brief exposure to performance-enhancing drugs could have benefits lasting years. So clean athletes could be lining up against athletes still reaping the rewards of their cheating long after they’ve been busted. Unfortunately the research is still only a tale of mice and not men, making it impossible to use to dictate how long sanctions should be. The lab is seeking the required permits to carry out the research on people, which will undoubtedly take a long time.
In the meantime, Travis Tygart, the head of US anti-doping, has come out and stated Gatlin deserves a shot at redemption. Tygart said that what’s fair is a set of rules that are enforced evenly but it’s much easier for someone like Travis Tygart to be magnanimous, as he isn’t an athlete.
Cheaters steal wins, medals, money and fame from clean athletes. That doesn’t seem fair to me.
From Gatlin’s point of view, he is by no means the first athlete to come back to the sport following a doping conviction but he is front and centre in this debate. He has never admitted his drug use or shown any remorse for it. Secondly, he is running times that for his age profile are very hard to believe. Lastly, he is in the most visible event in track, the men’s 100m sprint, and winning with such ease and arrogance, that it’s extremely hard to ignore.
In November, the athlete of the year award will be announced. No matter who the winner is, I can’t imagine myself having too much interest. The elephant has taken all the attention this year.
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