By John Lohn
CRANBURY, New Jersey, September 12. AFTER months of speculation, the Court of Arbitration for Sport released its ruling yesterday on the doping case involving Ous Mellouli. As a refresher, Mellouli returned a positive doping test at the U.S. Open last November. The Tunisian failed the test after using Adderall, a stimulant amphetamine that aids concentration levels. It is widely used by college students to assist during study sessions.
It was announced that Mellouli has been suspended for 18 months, retroactive to Nov. 30, 2006, and all of his results from that date forward have been vacated. Those results include his gold medal at the World Championships in the 800-meter freestyle and his silver medal in the 400 freestyle. However, the ban length will allow Mellouli to qualify for the Beijing Olympics next summer.
So, how should this case be viewed? Well, that depends on the set of glasses one is wearing. In some ways, Mellouli can be viewed as fortunate, in that he will not be denied the chance to race at the 2008 Olympic Games, where he figures to be a medal contender in the 400 freestyle and 400 individual medley. Yet, Mellouli can also be viewed as unfortunate, what with his world title wiped from the books.
From this point of view, we're going to declare Mellouli in the former category, if for only one reason. In rendering its decision on the Tunisian's case, the CAS could have traveled a number of paths. It could have banned Mellouli for two years, consequently making him ineligible for Beijing. Instead, it did Mellouli a favor, making the ban retroactive and for a timeframe that wouldn't interfere with his opportunity to compete on the biggest stage in sports.
There's no doubting Mellouli's intent in consuming Adderall. He wasn't trying to gain a competitive edge. Rather, he was seeking a way to aid in his academic studies, but was careless in doing so. Nonetheless, Mellouli's lack of negative intent does not free him from being penalized. In a sport that has dealt with nasty doping scenarios over the years, most notably in East Germany and China, a crackdown on violators is a must. Each swimmer is responsible for understanding what is on the banned substance list and what substances they are introducing to his/her body.
At the World Champs in Melbourne, Mellouli was spectacular. At the time, he became the first Arab world champion in the sport and firmly established himself as a threat to earn a podium position in Beijing. He was obviously clean in Australia and it's still all right to appreciate his times, even if they no longer earned hardware and are now considered unofficial. But, the 18-month punishment passed down was the appropriate call. If it hadn't been made, think of the can of worms that would have been opened. All the excuses in the world would come flying from athletes who were using banned substances for "legitimate" reasons.
Today, Ous Mellouli is both a fortunate and unfortunate athlete. But, weighing the possibilities that could have emerged, he is more lucky than not. Next year, he'll have the chance to compete at the Olympic Games and once again prove his worth on a major stage. Considering how close he was to not having that chance, he can count his blessings.