World of Sport

Why athletes must take responsibility for their drug tests

World of Sport

It was his fault.

On Wednesday, Sherone Simpson became the latest athlete to dip into the doping excuses manual and whip out the classic defence in an attempt to clear her own name.

[Simpson says trainer to blame for positive test]

Simpson’s argument: that she unwittingly took a banned substance provided to her by her Canadian trainer, Christopher Xuereb.

It’s a familiar theme – an athlete refusing to take responsibility for what enters their body. When they’re smashing out personal bests their interviews are packed full of one-line clichés about how success is down to their own hard work, but as soon as the drugs test comes back positive the credit is suddenly shifted elsewhere.

From Tyson Gay’s recent admission that he put his trust in someone “and was let down” to Justin Gatlin’s tale of a vindictive masseuse rubbing steroid cream into his legs, it’s fair to say athletics is no stranger to the scapegoat card.

Simpson – one of five Jamaicans to test positive at the national championships in Kingston last June, a group which included former 100m world record holder Asafa Powell – intimated to a disciplinary panel that she was not a cheat and had never intentionally taken the substance oxilofrine.

"I Googled the Epiphany D1 on the WADA banned list and saw nothing on the bottle which appeared on the WADA list,” Simpson told the panel. “No alarm bell. No red flag.”

But the idea that a scour of the internet could provide accurate answers on something as murky as supplements highlights a worrying absence of diligence on Simpson’s part.

It doesn’t matter that she browsed the web – as she claimed – for up to 14 hours. The sensible approach to taking anything dubious is to seek proper advice about a product’s contents and its legality – especially when you’re a three-time Olympic medallist in the public eye.

The whole purpose of taking a supplement is to boost performance. Therefore it’s crucial that these products are rigorously examined to ensure they are legal. The labels should not be treated as gospel and it is down to the athlete to make 100 per cent sure that what they are using is cleared.

A black cloud hung over the World Athletics Championships in Moscow in August – and not just because of Russia’s anti-gay laws and the swathes of empty seats.

The talk wasn’t about the action unfolding on the track and field; instead a debate raged about the spate of failed drugs tests prior to the championships with two names in particular – Powell and Gay – thrust into the spotlight.

Both were expected to contest the highly-anticipated 100m final, with the American predicted by many to topple Usain Bolt. But July’s doping revelations crushed not just that spectacle, but the entire season leaving fans questioning the sport and its protagonists.

Now, with Powell insisting he too is guilty of nothing more than a lack of vigilance, the time has come for athletics to make it absolutely clear that doping is black and white and refuse to accept protestations of innocence from those who have failed tests.

The sport is teetering on a precipice. It must not be allowed to sink to the depths that have consumed cycling, where every remarkable performance is openly labelled a potential doping violation – highlighted by the farcical nature of Chris Froome’s Tour de France win in which it was repeatedly suggested he was cheating, much to his anger.

There can be no grey area. To put it simply: if a banned substance is found in an athlete’s system, they are responsible for that and should be branded a drugs cheat.

Yes, that approach would lead to some being castigated for innocent mistakes and remembered alongside the likes of Ben Johnson and Marion Jones, but that’s far better than watching the sport spiral down the slippery slope of suspicion where astonishing feats are greeted with raised eyebrows rather than collective praise.

In an individual sport, the one person who can be held to an account is the athlete themselves. Regardless of whether doping was intentional, the punishment should be severe. Naivety can not be seen as a valid excuse.

Athletics has a problem. The fact Jamaica’s most senior drug tester said the country’s recent failed tests may merely be “the tip of an iceberg” highlights the challenge it faces.

To excuse Simpson and Powell when they took banned substances – knowingly or unknowingly, we may never know – would be a huge disservice to those athletes who painstakingly check everything they take, leading restricted lives as a result, and a major blow to the sport’s hopes of re-establishing credibility.

Whether it was a product of naivety or something more calculated, Simpson, Powell and co. must accept responsibility for the substance that entered their bodies, apologise, and serve the ban that follows.

Ben Snowball - On Twitter: @BenSnowball

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