In My Mind: Increasing the Doping Ban is Only a Start

Column by Nate Jendrick

SEATTLE, Washington, December 3. RECENTLY, it has been well covered that a proposal is circulating to increase the doping ban term from two years to four years. This is undoubtedly a step in the right direction for everyone who values clean sport, but it's only the beginning–the first step–in actually creating an atmosphere that would legitimately discourage unscrupulous athletes from cheating.

The proposal, which would double the length of the current ban for serious doping offenses, is essentially a reintroduction of Rule 45–also known as the Osaka Rule–that attempted to keep doping cheats out of the London Olympics. That rule stated that any athlete who was banned for more than six months would then also be prohibited from competing in the Olympic Games that followed the end of their ban. That stance was conceded after some battles in the legal arena, and as such, athletes who had faced doping offenses were welcomed in London. Now, should this new proposal pass, the term of the ban itself would keep an athlete out of the next Olympic Games.

While this is all good and fine and welcomed, it just isn't enough. First, the athlete in question who challenged Rule 45 most notably was LaShawn Merritt, a track runner. And, it was the USOC that supported his case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. This would seem from the outside like a huge conflict of interest. The USOC is supposed to support clean sport, but apparently when it comes to what looks like fielding a stronger team, they'll swing the other way.

Merritt tested positive three times during a several month period–surely fully aware of the rule of strict liability, where an athlete is responsible for what goes in his body no matter how it got there–and yet, they fought to make sure he could compete on the grandest stage of them all. Olympic Committees should in no way be allowed to defend athletes who have tested positive. It just doesn't send the right message. I have a strong suspicion that if the athlete in question hadn't been tapped to potentially win gold, the USOC wouldn't have been involved in the first place.

Second, how about that rule of strict liability? It wasn't but a decade ago that even something as beloved as caffeine was on the banned substance list. It didn't matter if it came from supplements or from coffee, an athlete was liable to test positive if their levels came back too high, excuses be damned. Now the substances in question run the gamut from natural herbs to complex lab created chemicals, yet athletes time and time again say, “Oops, I don't know how that got there,” and they end up getting off.

When even a story as implausible as an athlete having a prescription for caffeine, and sharing it with his teammates, and them all testing positive, gets believed and waved off, we know things have gotten far too lax. Why do athletes fear testing positive if they can hire a slick lawyer, say they didn't do it on purpose, and all is well again?

Third, I propose we get rid of the statute of limitations on taking away medals from athletes later found to have cheated. Lance Armstrong is obviously the most recent case in question. The IOC is looking at whatever legal route it may have, if any, to take Armstrong's Olympic hardware, but it may not be feasible. And if that's the case, it's a crying shame. There's no reason to have a limit on the length of time it takes to find a cheater and punish him or her. Let justice be served no matter how far off from the crime it may be able to be done. It's the least the IOC can do to try and make amends for an athlete getting a medal who didn't deserve it, for preventing a (presumably) honest athlete from his/her moment of glory, and to make up for fans cheering on someone who cheated them just as much as their competition.

Sport needs to be looked at as a privilege, not a right. It's an exclusive club at high-level competition and the barrier for entry should be a strict code of ethics that athletes are demanded to observe. And if they don't care to do that, the punishment should be swift and severe. People love to say its “unfair” to athletes if they test positive from something like a contaminated supplement.

While certainly unfortunate, that's the risk of being in the business, so to speak. That's why the strict liability rule was put in place. Because we as fans and the officials as the proverbial gate keepers can't tell the difference between athletes who meant to cheat, athletes who didn't, and athletes who are lying about intending to cheat. So if an athlete wants to be absolutely sure they don't have to worry about cross-contamination, then don't take supplements at all. If they choose to, that's their call. You take a risk when you drive over the speed limit that a cop may be just around the corner. If you're willing to risk taking supplements that may be contaminated, the onus is on you.

The fight for clean sport will always be an uphill battle, but the first step is one that actually advocates an atmosphere that makes it look–even just a little–like clean sport is what's being fought for in the first place.