World of Sport

Why athletics’ reputation is in tatters again

World of Sport

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Athletics is crumbling.

Once a true barometer of individual prowess, the sport’s credibility has been slowly eroded by a spate of positive drug tests across the past three decades. It started with Ben Johnson in 1988 and has continued to tarnish athletics ever since.

As each new doping case crops up, it becomes increasingly difficult to watch a remarkable performance without cynicism. The strongest men’s high jump field in history is currently operating on the Diamond League circuit, the women’s distance races are the most compelling in years, but it’s the same topic that continues to divert the attention: drugs in athletics.

The latest episode saw Jamaican sprinters Asafa Powell and Sherone Simpson given the all-clear to return to competition with immediate effect on Monday. Eighteen-month bans cut to six months by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The decision is staggering.


Not necessarily because of suspicions the pair intentionally cheated – although the fact their bans were not completely wiped out infers some guilt on their part – but because there was no explanation as to why they were handed more lenient punishments. And there won’t be for at least two weeks.

The message to athletics fans was clear: you don’t need answers, now welcome back your flawed heroes and forget this ever happened.

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Sherone Simpson (front R) talks with Asafa Powell as she arrives at a hearing in Kingston (January, 2014)

Powell and Simpson were sanctioned in July 2013 after testing positive for the banned stimulant oxilofrine – a substance perceived to speed up the fat burning process and potentially boost the rate at which the heart reaches its maximum output during exercise. Both vehemently denied taking the stimulant intentionally.

CAS’s decision means the pair have already served their penalty, despite their positive tests casting a shadow over the World Championships in Moscow last year. Instead of missing a full season, they return in the middle of 2014 with plenty of major meets left on the calendar – even if both will likely be missing from the Commonwealth Games.

Similarly, no convincing explanation was offered as to why Tyson Gay was banned for a year in May – a suspension just 52 days from elapsing by the time the verdict was passed down – except the flimsy announcement that he had provided information to the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) to help combat performance-enhancing drugs.

It’s time for the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to clear it all up and restore some faith in the sport. Why was Gay only banned for a year after testing positive for an anabolic steroid? Why are Powell and Simpson suddenly allowed to compete again? And why not keep the Olympics free of all drug offenders, regardless of the severity of the offence?

Let’s get one thing clear: Gay, Powell and Simpson all had banned substances in their system. Whether it was a product of negligence matters little – it damaged the sport and should have been sanctioned accordingly. The punishment should fit the crime – anabolic steroids clearly trump a stimulant only banned during competition – but adding in a lifetime Olympic ban for all doping offences would encourage vigilance across sport.

The idea that someone could get away with a slap on the wrist is bad enough, but it’s even more ridiculous that the explanations from the authorities are vague or withheld. The bans have to be complemented with immediate clarification, or we’re left in a situation where athletes can just saunter back into the sport and no one quite knows why.

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Justin Gatlin of the US (L) competes against compatriots Michael Rodgers (C) and Tyson Gay in the men's 100m race during the Lausanne Diamond League meeting, July 3, 2014

Anyone heading to the Lucerne athletics meet in Switzerland tomorrow will be greeted with two familiar names on the startlists: Powell and Simpson. Should either triumph in their respective events, the dialogue will inevitably shift from focusing on the track and field to drugs.

Two weeks ago, athletics was shamed when three sprinters who had served drugs bans – Gay, Justin Gatlin and Mike Rogers – lined up in the same field in Lausanne. The race served as a reminder that cheats can prosper and rob clean athletes of acclaim and prize money. Only the latter of the trio has issued anything resembling an apology for his positive test.

Young sprinters flirting with the 10-second barrier over 100 metres will look at that race and truly question their place in the sport. Some may even experiment with banned substances – after all if they get caught, they can still hope for a fresh start within months of their suspension starting.

The swathes of empty seats at Diamond League meetings across the globe are a signal that interest in athletics is dwindling. Usain Bolt’s chicken nugget-fuelled Olympic triumph in 2008 and subsequent domination could only keep the sport afloat for so long. Athletics needs new stars to broaden its appeal, not old ones dragging it through the dirt with excuses.

So congratulations, Powell and Simpson, for getting your bans reduced. Perhaps you were only guilty of negligence. But when the fans finally end their interest in athletics, you’ll be partly accountable.

Ben Snowball - On Twitter: @BenSnowball

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