There are two ways of dealing with drugs in sport. Either make it legal, or ensure that policing and punishment are tighter than it is now. The first ensures a level playing field of sorts, the second rewards clean athletes and penalises cheats.

It is 30 years since Ben Johnson won, and was then disqualified from, the 100m at the Seoul Olympics. He had won propelled by the anabolic steroid Stanozolol, and had brought the problem into our drawing rooms via television. Famous cheats serve the sport by focusing attention on the problem.

About a decade later, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was established. Motto: “Play true”. But WADA itself is hardly playing true.

A world in turmoil

WADA’s decision to lift the ban on Russia for its state-sponsored programme of doping has thrown the sports world into turmoil because it failed to stick to its own conditions for reinstatement. Jim Walden, lawyer for the Russian whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov, has called it “the greatest treachery against clean athletes in Olympic history.”

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WADA had made it clear to Russia that the only way they could get back into competition after the scandal was discovered in 2015 was to accept the McLaren Report that probed the affair and to grant WADA full access to Moscow’s anti-doping laboratory. The McLaren Report found that more than one thousand Russian athletes across 30 sports benefited from the state-sponsored doping since 2011.

WADA, in a happy compromise, indicated it was sufficient if Russia agreed that McLaren’s name was spelt correctly on the cover and admitted that Moscow was indeed a part of their country. Or so it seemed, given the excuses the anti-doping body made on Russia’s behalf before waving the green flag and allowing the doping caravan to move on.

Government support

Doping so often survives with government support (which means research, and not just exchanging tainted urine through a hole in the wall, as in the case of the Russian athletes at the Sochi Olympics), that to calculate the price of a medal at international meets would require a special algorithm. One that works out the effect on an athlete’s health, the opportunity loss for all rivals, the ethical impact on sport, and the cost of national glory.

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The research by the cheats always stays one step ahead of the policing. Athletes get caught only if they get sloppy or if someone blows the whistle.

So where do we go from here? Is WADA credible any more as an anti-doping agency having just made clear that sport is merely politics by another name? And what of the anti-doping movement itself?

Isn’t it ironical that drug cheats like Johnson serve the cause of anti-doping better than the body established for it?