Athletics is struggling. Seemingly every day another athlete is busted for taking performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) and just last year the entire Russian track and field team was banned from competing in the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Update: they are still banned. Russia is not alone, there are plenty of other countries that are skating on thin ice, having been previously declared non-compliant and subsequently reinstated.
In recent years, numerous Olympic and World Championship medalists have been stripped of their medals, forcing the IOC and IAAF to rewrite the record books. Those medals, once stripped from the guilty athlete, are then delivered to their rightful owner–in many cases years after the fact– long after the stadiums have emptied, the sponsorship deals have gone away, and, in some cases, careers have ended.
The result for these athletes is not only a significant financial loss – missing out on lucrative bonuses from their sponsors, new sponsorship deals, and appearance fees in future competitions – but also missing out on their moment: that moment every athlete dreams of when he or she is standing on top of the podium, watching their country’s flag get raised and their anthem played. Most athletes don’t pick up a sport solely to make money or get famous. They do it because they love it and because they have a dream to one day represent their country at the highest level. Too often, that moment has been stolen from these clean athletes, gone forever.
Take, for instance, the women’s 1500m at the London 2012 Olympics. The picture below says it all. On the left is the image left untouched. One the right, everyone that has been implicated in the use of PEDs has been removed. The difference is upsetting.
This story hits close to home for me as two Canadians, Hilary Stellingwerff and Nicole Sifuentes, made the semi-final of the event but missed out on qualifying for the finals. Stellingwerff was one spot removed from making the final in heat one (fifth in the heat) while Sifuentes was 10th in heat two. Both would be in the top 12 if athletes linked to PEDs were eliminated. But instead, these athletes’ Olympic final moment was stolen from them. Forever. The effect it has had on them and their careers is impossible to tally.
The Way Forward
There is no easy fix. There are so many factors involved that no single solution will fix it all. But there are definitely immediate actions that come to mind that can do a lot of good when it comes to minimizing doping in sport:
1. Educate for prevention
Many athlete that use PEDs don’t think much past the legality of their actions. They lack an understanding of what they are doing to their bodies and the health risks involved. Overall, education is the most effective method at reducing the number of athletes using PEDs and more resources need to be put into education about clean sport.
2. Implement bans
Right now the penalty doesn’t fit the crime and until the penalties for doping get stricter people will continue to cheat. Extending bans to a minimum of eight years for serious doping offences or applying lifetime bans in appropriate cases would ensure that cheating athletes miss at least two Olympic cycles.
3. Keep good company
Athletes rarely use PEDs in isolation. My suggestion to athletes is to avoid any groups or individuals that have a reputation for being dirty or even just a little morally grey – no matter how great their reputation is on the field. When you associate with individuals or teams that have a reputation for doping in sport, you put yourself in harm’s way and make it that much harder to separate yourself should you find yourself in an uncomfortable spot.
In the end, we can definitely do better – much better. I don’t know if we’ll ever see truly clean sport, since as long as there is an incentive to cheat, there will be people willing to try, no matter the consequences. But my advice to athletes is to not let this get you down. Sport is about so much more than just medals. Focus on the process and your personal journey. Aim to be the best athlete you can be and no matter where that gets you, you can go to sleep at night knowing you did your best and you did it clean. Nothing can beat that.