You too Maria
Having heard the world’s most loved tennis star’s admission that she had failed a drug test during the Australian Open in January 2016, shows the world has yet to come to grips with the scale of use of performance enhancing drugs in the sporting world. Tennis player Maria Sharapova has now joined a growing group of professional athletes with a doping scandal hanging over their heads. She tested positive to a recently banned substance. It's called meldonium. It happened at the Australian Open.
She said she was taking it for a family history of diabetes and didn't know the drug had been banned. Sharapova is probably one of the most visible athletes in the world, but just how prevalent is doping among athletes of such a huge stature?
What leads sportsmen around the globe to take performance enhancing drugs? Are they really unaware of the repercussions? Isn’t the regulatory system confusing and ambiguous? How Russia is plagued most with the doping epidemic? These are some of the questions that are being echoed worldwide and need to be answered.
Money shows its colour
Why has doping become so endemic in sport? In previous years, doping was little known, and largely practiced at the fringes. However, the advent of television into sports has brought billions of dollars with it. “Sports is now one of the most lucrative ventures globally for sports stars and their teams, as well as bodies that run sports, and national associations. Sports superstars earn mind boggling figures. Appearance fees have gone through the roof, and a well known star can command hundreds of thousands of dollars before even stepping into a pitch. Prize money is also in hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Sourabh Sarin, a Delhi-based sports event manager. Not only this, endorsements go into the millions, besides being paid by manufacturers of sports apparel and equipment for competing with their gear. Sharapova receives over $2 billion annually in endorsement fees alone from global brands such as Nike, Porshe and Tag Heuer.
Getting to the top means practicing harder, for longer, and with greater intensity. This is where drugs come in. A whole industry has been spawned by drugs in sport. Laboratories, medical personnel, researchers are now involved in the formulation of ever smarter drugs that can hide from detection agents, or mislead them. That is why icons like Sharapova and Lance Armstrong (French Cyclist) have thrived for years under the very noses of authorities fighting drugs in sports. The race for becoming more successful and making money lands several players in career ruining activities.
Loopholes in the system
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is currently overwhelmed. It does not have enough labs or agents to keep track of the ever growing band of sports men and women all over the world engaged competitively in tens of disciplines. It has an even thinner capacity to undertake the most critical weapon it has against doping-out of competition testing.
Unfortunately, it remains isolated as the only body globally that has zero-tolerance mindset to doping. Most other institutions in sports have an ambivalent attitude towards doping. For sports authorities, the rise and rise of sports stars in their disciplines brings in the numbers, and rakes in the money and sponsors. Indeed, in 1997, then tennis superstar, Andre Agassi, failed a drugs test.
The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) the sports body that runs male tennis globally, covered this up and kept it secret for years. For national associations, the immense international prestige that comes from being a global powerhouse in sports, and the attraction it brings from sponsors and the authorities who run global sports, makes the risk well worth it. It is, therefore, impossible to know who knows what, and when.
Suffice it to say that most national associations and bodies that run sport are fully aware of sometimes, even the sports men and women on drugs, but turn a blind eye. Shocking revelations in recent months about top officials of athletics bodies both at the global level and in Kenya taking money to cover up positive drug tests shows that the rot is so deep one wonders whether the situation can be redeemed.
There is a general belief about the inefficacy of anti-doping programmes, and athletes criticise the way tests are carried out. Most athletes consider the severity of punishment is appropriate or not severe enough. There are some differences between sports, as team-based sports and sports requiring motor skills could be less influenced by doping practices than individual self-paced sports. However, anti-doping controls are less exhaustive in team sports.
High time to mend ways
It is now clear that the bans imposed on drugs cheats have zero deterrence. Many believe that doping needs to be criminalised much in the way economic crimes and sabotage are. These need to be legislated into national laws, complete with heavy fines and jail terms. Doping in sports will continue as long as those caught are merely given bans, which amounts to just a slap on the wrist. As Sharapova and Armstrong demonstrated by their many years of competition.
Drastic actions need to be taken to restore sport, and stop a massive loss of global confidence. A public backlash is looming since it is now impossible for fans to believe in any victory in sports. Where is this all heading? Bodies that run global sport and their national affiliates must convene an urgent summit to discuss doping, and design new strategies of fighting it.
The current methods are antiquated and way behind the current technologies for evasion. Unless they do this, in the next five years, sports will be so intoxicated with drugs that the legion of fans who keep television revenues pouring in through avid support will flee the stench. Then television will follow the fans in heading for the exits.
Athletes are becoming increasingly familiar with anti-doping rules, but there is still a lack of knowledge that should be remedied using appropriate educational programmes. There is also a lack of information on dietary supplements and the side effects of Performance Enhancing Substance (PES). Therefore, information and prevention are necessary, and should cater to the athletes and associated stakeholders. This will allow us to establish and maintain correct attitudes towards doping.
Russia prone to cheating?
Five months before the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Russia's track and field team remains barred from competition as a result of the WADA-commissioned inquiry. The IAAF plans to make a final decision in May on whether Russia should be allowed back in for the games. Now Russian tennis star Sharapova has added to the nation’s woes. WADA’s report described the situation in Russia as a deeply rooted culture of cheating, in which the acceptance of cheating at all levels is widespread and of long standing, indicative of a fundamentally flawed mindset that is deeply ingrained in all levels of Russian athletics.
“It soaks through the whole system,” Eugen Dimant, a postdoctoral researcher in the philosophy, politics, and economics program and the Behavioral Ethics Lab at the University of Pennsylvania was quoted as saying in a news report last year. “The case is to some degree reminiscent of the darkest days of systemic doping that we experienced in the former East Germany. Sports is an important part of Russia’s culture and their identity. This also has a geopolitical side to it, especially in light of the current political and economic occurrences and muscle flexing with Western countries.”
WADA data on all sports support the idea that doping is endemic in Russia. In drug tests conducted at WADA-accredited labs in 2013, the country with the greatest number of positive tests for banned substances was Russia.
Russia in deep trouble
And now an investigation by The Times in London has raised deeply troubling questions about systemic doping in Russian swimming and evidence of further cover-ups. This comes on top of world 100m breaststroke champion Yuliya Efimova’s failed drug test for meldonium, the second positive test of her career. Australia’s head swimming coach, Jacco Verhaeren, joined others on March 23 in calling for wider action against systematic doping. With more than 40 positive tests, Russia has the worst doping record in aquatic sport in the past decade but there are fears that some cases have never been disclosed, including two swimmers who tested positive for erythropoietin, a blood booster, but were never punished.
On November 9 last year, an independent commission of the World Anti-Doping Agency released a 323-page report on doping in Russian track and field. The commission was headed by the highly respected Dick Pound, the founding president of WADA, which oversees the anti-doping movement in Olympic sports throughout the world, finds:
- Coaches, officials in the Russian track and field federation, officials in Russia’s anti-doping agency, and others, organised efforts “to promote doping and make it possible for such efforts to be successful, including the cover-up of certain positive cases of doping”
- The International Association of Athletics Federations and the Russian federation did not take action on doping cases, leading to athletes who should have been banned competing in and medaling at the 2012 Olympics
- More than 1,400 positive drug-test results were destroyed, some at an unaccredited lab, to keep them from WADA
- u State security services likely participated and other evidence revealed “that the federal government was not only complicit in the collusion, but that it was effectively a state-sponsored regime”
- Bribes were accepted by high-level IAAF officials to ignore positive doping tests