Another year of repeated shame

The IAAF President, Lamine Diack, has, in recent years, often sought to blame the media for exaggerating the nuisance of doping.-R. RAGU

A major fallout of the controversies that surfaced during the year has been the decision of the IAAF to bring back the four-year ban for a first time infringement, starting January 1, 2015. By A. Vinod.

Faith in athletics, the glamour event even in the Olympic Games, was in the firing line yet again as repeated revelations of some of the sport’s top guns failing drug tests sent seismic shocks across the world during the year. In fact, what 2013 witnessed was a virtual repeat of the preceding years and one of no respite from the scourge that has haunted the sport for long.

This, despite the fact that the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has been the first among all International Federations to adopt a zero-tolerance policy against doping and drug-cheaters. It was in 1928 in Amsterdam that the IAAF first took the stand that doping of any nature represented an unethical way of winning and introduced penalties against those cheats who transgressed the line.

The fight against doping has continued since then, with the IAAF consistently spending vast amounts of resources to ensure fair play in the sport, going even to the extent of collecting blood samples of all the participating athletes (around 2000) at its showpiece event — the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, in 2011. Perhaps, this could also be the reason that the IAAF president, Lamine Diack, has, in recent years, often sought to blame the media for exaggerating the nuisance of doping, when questioned on the subject.

The veteran sports administrator was once again sharp when asked, on July 1, at the sidelines of the Asian Athletics Association Congress in Pune, on whether he foresaw a drug-free World Championships (in Moscow from August 10). “You guys need to be more responsible. It is a problem with the media, worldwide, that you simply blow up a positive test, even though it represents only a miniscule per cent of the total number of tests that we do year after year, spending millions of dollars.”

Diack seemed to have a point then. But, his words of wisdom were simply blown away in a matter of days as two of the quickest men of the season and second and fourth respectively in the all-time list — American Tyson Gay and Jamaican Asafa Powell — were reported to have failed tests on the same day.

The shattering double shock of July 14 had been preceded by a similar result returned by double Olympic 200m champion Veronica Campbell-Brown. The list saw the addition of four more Jamaican athletes including two Olympians, Alison Randall and Sherone Simpson, leading to discussions as to how measures to end the threat could be further strengthened.

The issue became more serious, following the failed tests of six of Jamaica’s top athletes and the startling revelations of former executive director of the Jamaican Anti-Doping Commission (JADCO), Renee Anne-Shirley. She blew the whistle on the shambolic lack of anti-doping measures in the run-up to the 2012 London Olympics (just one out-of-competition test in the six months prior to the Games), which forced the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to launch an audit into the anti-doping regime in the island nation.

The audit eventually paved the way for the resignation of the entire board of JADCO and the intervention of the Jamaican Government which vowed to the rest of the world that it would take strong corrective measures. Elsewhere too, there was much consternation particularly in the case of Russia, which had the most number of athletes (around 40 out of the total 321 currently undergoing sanctions world-wide) in the IAAF list of drug-cheaters.

Equally disturbing were the widespread instances of athletes from Turkey testing positive (31 in the last count) and the poor track record of Kenya, especially in the background of oft-repeated charges about prevalent usage of drugs in its camps for elite long-distance runners. Kenya, since then, has finally agreed to set up a high-level commission to look into the issue, thus turning a new page in anti-doping history.

It was a matter of coincidence that the year also marked the silver jubilee of the greatest shame to hit world athletics ever — the disqualification of Canadian Ben Johnson from the 1988 Seoul Olympics just three days after he had burned the tracks to demolish a star studded field with a new World record. The Canadian, as he re-visited the scene of his triumph and disgrace a quarter century later, adopted a rather perplexing approach as he said, “This is where history was made. Some might call it bad history, but I don’t see it that way.”

A major fallout of the controversies that surfaced during the year has been the decision of the IAAF to bring back the four-year ban for a first time infringement, starting January 1, 2015. It is true that such a punishment was meted out in the past until 1997 when the sanctions were reduced to two years to bring it in line with those adopted by other International Federations. Incidentally, WADA has also now agreed to follow the same pattern in its new Code, effective from the first day of 2015.

While the re-adoption of the four-year ban could prove to be a major deterrent to athletes in their attempt to cheat in the future, whether this measure can wipe out the menace from the sport is the moot question doing the rounds now.

The athletics community is indeed divided on the issue with the likes of American legend, Michael Johnson, believing that it would be unrealistic to think the sport will ever be drug-free. “Athletics is the microcosm of real life. In real life, you will always have people who cheat.

“It is unrealistic to expect athletics to be drug-free,” the four-time Olympic champion said.

In truth, the threat can be fully overcome only if the IAAF takes the extreme step of imposing a life-ban on drug-cheaters, as advocated by Paula Radcliffe, the world-record holder in marathon, and many others. And until such time, each year could see instances of even the top athletes of the world getting caught red-handed for doping. Just like it happened through the year in 2013.