With the Olympic Games in London only 9 months away, there has been a lot of talk about who will be appearing at the Games. Usain Bolt, Chris Hoy, and Tom Daley are names that will be mentioned countless times over the coming months. However personalities such as Dwain Chambers, David Millar and, more recently, the American sprinter LaShawn Merritt, will cast aspersions over their integrity.
Only recently the Court of Arbitration for Sport overturned Merritt’s ‘lifetime’ ban on competing in future games, which rather than restoring faith in Merritt and the sport as a whole, has proceeded only to cast a bigger shadow on them. Given this precedent, Chambers, who tested positive for the steroid THG in 2003, and Millar, who admitted to using the banned drug EPO in 2004, could similarly succeed in ending their lifetime bans from the British Olympic Association. But the debate remains; are their appeals in the interest of the BOA?
The answer is complex, as there have been numerous cases of ‘doping’ that have received only mild punishments throughout the sporting world, whilst quite minor cases of drug abuse have been ruthlessly disciplined, sending a damning message to professional athletes who were thinking of following in their colleagues’ footsteps. This is not to say that doping should not be punished or taken seriously, because it should, but rather that the severity of the reprimand should reflect the drug’s purpose. Clearly, in sports that place a premium on incredible athleticism, like sprinting and cycling, the cases of performance-enhancing drug usage are numerous, just as the list of proven and suspected drug offences in all sports is comprehensive. Andre Agassi, widely regarded as one of the greatest tennis players of all time, famously confessed in 1997 to using crystal meth. Alex Rodriguez, who is held in similar esteem as Agassi but in baseball, conceded that he used steroids early on in his incredible career. Edgar Davids, the former Dutch international, was banned by FIFA in 2001, after being found guilty of using nandrolone, an anabolic steroid. Three different sports, yet all three cases resulted in the same disappointment for fans.
It seems that there are two excuses that arise when drug users in sport are questioned. Unsurprisingly, the most common one is the desire to play well and win, as exemplified by Rodriguez claiming that his decision to take steroids was an unavoidable consequence of the “enormous amount of pressure” on him to perform. The second recurring explanation is that the athlete feels that there is nothing left for their career or for themselves to bother playing by the rules. Justin Gatlin, who won the Olympic Gold medal in the 100m at Athens had reached the peak of his success in sprinting in 2004, yet, he confessed that he “got to the point where I said, ‘I don’t care anymore’… [I] was depressed about life, period.” Despite this, the various governing bodies of athletics, above all the International Olympic Committee, regard the consumption of drugs by professional athletes as an extremely unethical act that jeopardises the equality of opportunity for competitors, irrespective of whatever reason the athlete may give.
It is therefore contentious to see how Merritt has managed to overturn his ban by claiming that the steroid in his blood had come from a “penis elongation” drug, whereas David Millar — who has been a relentless campaigner against the use of performance-enhancing drugs since returning to cycling in 2006 — received no such reprieve. The BOA are not wrong in maintaining his lifetime Olympic ban, but one might still question the fairness of this decision in light of Merritt’s reinstatement. It is certainly good that the BOA sends out a firm message to athletes concerning the use of these drugs; however, it seems rather hypocritical that the Court of Arbitration for Sport preaches fairness amongst athletes then allows one athlete guilty of doping to compete in the Games, but not another. These organisations deny their lack of judgement, but there is no denying that if this keeps happening, doping could become more widespread.