Home / Opinion / Blogs /  PLAY THINGS: Can’t do with it, can’t do without it

It’s a sad day for sports. Three top sprinters testing positive for banned substances is as hard a blow as it can get for athletics. US sprinter Tyson Gay, who clocked the three best 100m timings this year, holds the record for the second fastest 100m timing ever and is a former world champion, is one of those three. Jamaican Asafa Powell, who held the 100m world record from 2005 till 2008, is another. Sherone Simpson, also from Jamaica and part of the country’s multiple Olympic medal winning relay team, completes the trio.

Gay has already accepted the verdict, telling the Associated Press on Sunday: “I don’t have any lies. I don’t have anything to say to make this seem like it was a mistake. I will take whatever punishment I get like a man."

Powell and Simpson have claimed innocence. Gay and Powell have withdrawn from the 2013 World Championships in Moscow in August, dousing all the excitement of what was seen as one of the most explosive sprinting competitions in the history of the sport.

What’s worse, as part of the US Anti-Doping Agency’s (USADA) My Victory programme, Gay is one of the select group of 11 US Olympians who volunteered for extra-rigorous testing to show their support for doping regulations. His tagline was: “I compete clean because I really believe in fairness. And besides that, my Mom would kill me!"

Not since Marion Jones’ 2007 doping admission (which saw her haul of five medals at the 2000 Olympics rescinded) has the sprinting world seen a substance abuse scandal of such import.

What happens to athletics now? Will this revelation push track and field back to the dark days post Ben Johnson’s dramatic 1988 Olympic scandal, when he tested positive after setting a world record in the 100m? The repercussions from the Johnson ban were felt for years in the sprinting world, and track and field athletes never really enjoyed the same suspicion-free adulation and popularity that they had before the incident.

Then in 2008, Usain Bolt came along and set the tracks afire. He broke records with such effortless ease that spectators were left shell-shocked. He made the others in his field, the best sprinters in the world, look like amateurs. He was all charm—a singing, dancing, showboating, funny guy—he could put anyone at ease with his innocent playfulness, his big, warm smile. And he was a biomechanical miracle. Sprinting had never seen anything quite like him.

Gay and Powell were his closest competitors, and the inevitable question is doing the rounds—if they have fallen, how long before Bolt, the miracle man, is exposed too? If that comes to pass, then sprinting’s darkest days are here. It will outshadow Marion Jones and Ben Johnson. It will be a blow that the sport will take decades to recover from.

The positive tests also confirm, as it has been proven many times since the 1990s, that doping is endemic in elite sports. As the BALCO (Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative) and Marion Jones’ confessions in 2007 showed conclusively, doping is a high-stakes game with extremely well-funded labs involved in constantly improving systems of doping and masking to help athletes gain an edge and not get caught. The anti-doping bodies, on the other hand, are forever playing catch up, often dependent on leaks from inside the doping industry to identify new drugs, systems, or masking agents.

“We’re fighting the dark side," World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) director general David Howman said at a press conference last year. “Marion Jones competed for seven years without one positive test result. For seven years, she said, ‘I’m clean, I’ve been tested more than any other athlete in the world.’"

Like Marion Jones, Lance Armstrong, who won seven straight Tour de France cycling titles, never tested positive. When allegations against him were made, he spent years aggressively denying them, launching slander campaigns against his accusors, and calling himself “the most tested athlete in the world".

He confessed to doping in a televised interview with Oprah Winfrey this year in January. His career and reputation had already been destroyed in 2012, when he was banned for life, stripped of all his Tour de France titles, and labelled by the USADA as the man who led “the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme that sport has ever seen".

As an example of the gap between anti-doping measures and doping reality, consider blood doping, in which oxygen-carrying red blood cells in an athlete’s body are illegally enhanced. It began in the 1970s, but was banned only in 1985. The first successful tests for blood doping were developed only in the late 90s.

In 2000, a Swedish cyclist, Niklas Axelsson, was the first to test positive for EPO, a substance based on a naturally ocurring hormone that causes a spurt in the growth of red blood cells. But blood doping can be done in many ways, including withdrawing the athlete’s own blood, freezing it, and re-injecting a small dose before competition—WADA has no tests yet to detect this method.

The same applies for just about any performance-enhancing method and masking agents that you can think of.

‘We’re lagging way behind," Dick Pound, who was chairman of WADA from its formation in 1999 to 2007, told reporters last year at the London Games.

As a result, every year, WADA’s list of banned substances keeps growing. It now contains more than 250 substances, some of which can be found in cooking oil, non-prescription medicines, and natural food stuff. WADA’s method of testing too has evolved into an unwieldy and expensive behemoth. At the London Games, more than 5,000 tests were conducted, an unprecedented number, which included every single medallist.

WADA’s out-of-competition testing rules are so stringent that in any other context they would be seen as a breach of human rights. The so-called whereabouts clause, introduced in 2004, demands that all athletes provide their location for a one-hour window 365 days a year for surprise testing. World champion US shot putter Christian Cantwell was tested the day his son was born in 2008, with the testing agent landing up at the hospital where the delivery was taking place.

And yet, there is no stopping the usage of drugs. Simply because sports has become so cutting edge, so close to the limits of human performance, that every elite athlete knows he or she needs the aid of banned substances and illegal procedures to compete at the top level.

Hopefully an incendiary, once-in-a-lifetime athlete like Usain Bolt or a Michael Phelps will be the exception that proves the rule.

This weekly series, which appears on Mondays, talks about all things play—from real to virtual, stadiums to playstations, and football games to board games.

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