Drugs have cast a shadow over sport for decades, but their continued proliferation shows that the governing bodies’ reaction has been inadequate. Since the IOC introduced a Medical Commission in 1967, authorities have been chasing the drug cheats in something of an arms race. With the IAAF World Championship coming up on 5 August, it would seem that we are no closer to fixing this mess.
The IAAF is conscious of the need to be both retroactive and proactive as they seek to scour drugs from athletics. In the first case, a radical new plan is being introduced that will expunge any world record from before 2005. In the second, notorious doping country, Russia, has been given a global ban for systematic drug use thought to be used throughout the sport.
The European Athletic plan is seen as a means to clear the taint of drugs from athletics. The idea, which has been welcomed by many at the higher levels of athletics, is to expunge all records pre-2005. This year marks the first time that blood and urine samples were kept for a longer period of time, thus ensuring that they could be tested whenever the governing body was inclined to check on them. Before 2005, most samples were discarded: therefore we will never know for sure whether the East German teams of the 70s were using human growth hormone, as was the complaint at the time. Their records still stand, but given the probably use of drugs, this creates an unbreachable level for modern day –and supposedly clean- athletes.
Speaking after IAAF Chairman Sebastian Coe supported the move, IAAF chief executive Olivier Gers said “I definitely share Seb’s enthusiasm for the project. I want to stress that it’s a proposal for the council on July 31. It is definitely very interesting.”
Some athletes also support the move. Jamaican sprinter Elaine Thompson, with Florence Griffith-Joyner’s records for the 100 and 200 metres in mind, said “Those records were set before I was born. It’s unfair for us as the time is a long stretch. I don’t know if we can work towards that.”
Naturally, the plan has caused uproar within the ranks of the record holders. Many were clean throughout their careers, and through no fault of their own, will see their records removed from the history books. Mike Powell’s record long jump of 8.95m, Hichem El Guerrouj’s 1500m time of 3.26.00s and Paula Radcliffe’s mighty marathon record of 2:15:25s will all disappear.
Radcliffe has been widely reported as the most vocal in her condemnation of the plan. Still a prominent sporting celebrity, she released a statement in which she eviscerated the plan. In it she stated that “We had to compete against cheats, they could not provide us a level playing field, we lost out on medals, moments and earnings due to cheats, saw our sport dragged through the mud due to cheats and now, thanks to those who chose to cheat we potentially lose our world and area records…. I am hurt and do feel this damages my reputation and dignity. It is a heavy-handed way to wipe out some really suspicious records in a cowardly way”.
Indeed, it is hard to disagree with her. Her record has stood for over 20 years and for that mere fact she will see it crossed out: not only that, but because this is a procedure that is designed to counter drug use, she will forever be tainted by the faint whiff of corruption.
Russian Ban: but what about the clean ones?
The McLaren report was conducted within Russian athletics and found irrefutable evidence that the Russian teams were involved in systematic doping, which was sanctioned and even encouraged from the very top of the Russian athletics pyramid.
This bust saw the banning of Russia from sport since November 2015, and the ban will continue until November of this year at least, ruling the nation out of the IAAF World Championships.
In order to return to athletics, the Russian Athletics Federation, or RusAF, is being investigated by an IAAF Taskforce, headed up by Norwegian Rune Andersen. RusAF need to get approval from the World Anti-Doping Agency as part of their rehabilitation. However, speaking in June, Sebastian Coe gave a muted response to questions regarding the progress of RusAF: “I think the Taskforce report, which I was commenting about, was that they had wanted to see more progress being made and that for whatever reason they, in their meetings in Russia, had not sensed that the same momentum was there.”
Unlike in the case of the expunging of records, the IAAF has been able to act with greater flexibility with the Russian ban.
Some Russian athletes have applied to appear at the Championships as neutrals. With stringent drugs testing, the IAAF has approved 15 Russian to compete: javelin champion Vera Rebrik, 400m runner Ksenia Aksyonova; and hurdler Vera Rudakova the most recent additions. At the same time, 45 applications have been rejected, such is the focus on transparency in this case.
While the wholesale banning of the Russians caused quite a stir when it first came to light, allowing demonstrably clean performers to compete has soothed some of the Russians and enabled the Taskforce to work in an atmosphere of greater trust. Perhaps the IAAF should use this pragmatic yet stringent approach more often.