So five more Russian athletes gets popped for drugs, and so it goes. And our hands wring, and our spirits sink, and yet nothing seems to change, and the sport continues to suffer even as the new boss grinds his teeth and promises and promises to “do all that I can…”. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

I wasn’t in the army for a very long time, but one thing every new soldier remembers vividly is boot camp, that soul-starching introduction to military life. Modernity continues to change many things, but the art of military training has an ancient pedigree, tried and true.

One mechanism the drill instructors utilized quite successfully was punishing the unit for the offense of the individual. Sure, it didn’t seem fair to the pimple-faced recruit, but it all depends on one’s ultimate objective. In combat if one person in the unit screws up, everyone can suffer when the stakes are at their highest. That was the hard lesson of war, so that had to be the hard lesson in training. Eventually the unit polices itself, because it can’t afford to have one person compromise everybody.

PigpenTherefore if one guy didn’t have his footlocker squared away, everybody did push-ups.  If one guy didn’t bathe regularly (it happened more than you would’ve thought) pretty soon his barracks mates would drag the smelly colleague into the shower and scrub him with a hard bristle brush. That tended to clean things up right away.


In New York City last week there was a minor stink about Russian agent Andrey Baranov not having of any of his athletes invited to the marathon. Race organizers didn’t admit it outright, but in essence they were taking the military model of making the unit suffer for the sins of the individuals(s).

At the same time, Kenya has had a rash of very public drug positives in recent years, yet their runners were welcomed as usual, even from agencies with several high profile drug busts in their camps. So, it is all very murky and subjective, and all the public knows is that the sport is as dirty as Charlie Brown’s friend Pigpen.

As long as every race is in charge of its own drug testing, and has to pay for that drug testing, some simply won’t.  And the cynical offenders will know which do and which don’t. And even when somebody gets caught and banned, like Russia’s Lilya Shobukhova, the two-time Abbott World Marathon Majors series champion, if they decide to cooperate, then they get their penalty reduced.  So where, might we ask, is the real disincentive?


This drug problem in sport has been going on without resolution for over 60 years. We all might agree that we’ve had a fair sampling of clean-up campaigns. And appearing just over the horizon is the specter of gene manipulation, which will make drug use look a little horse-and-buggy like. This is not at all heading in a very good direction.

Penalties are put in place both to punish and to deter.  What seems abundantly clear is that the current policy is woefully inadequate on both fronts.  So either make PED use a crime and send the offenders off to jail for committing fraud – which is what they are doing in accepting prize, bonus and appearance money under false pretenses — or make it a lifetime ban as some suggest, or simply legalize the practice and move on. Because to say the current policy is ineffective is to short change ineffective.


ProhibitionOne of the first lessons a runner learns is to have realistic expectations. So let’s just take a look.

Prohibition was a nationwide constitutional ban on the sale, production, importation, and transportation of alcoholic beverages that remained in place from 1920 to 1933. It took the Great Depression and the constriction of taxable revenue streams to hasten its eventual repeal. But through that decade and a half dry spell the unintended consequence was the creation of a bootlegger’s black market controlled by crime bosses (and Kennedys).

Marijuana, which had been regulated in the USA since 1619, was finally banned outright in the 1920s. Yet, this prohibition, too, did little to stem the demand or use, while again creating a dark underground market, including the infamous Mexican drug cartels.

Marijuana legalToday, some 28 states have enacted medical marijuana laws, removing jail time for possession of small amounts, and/or have legalized the possession, distribution, and sale.  Recreational pot is legal in four states and Washington D.C.

At some point you have to ask the tough questions. Is it possible to stop PED use?  Evidently not. Is it killing the sport to keep trying and failing?  Evidently it is. So at what point do you accept the inevitability of it all?

Where in all of this is the chicken, where the egg?  PED use is driven by circumstance and greed, the desire to win the big prize, to better your life and those you love. So either reduce the carrot, increase the stick or simply remove the prohibition altogether.

Legalize the practice and let the buyer beware, because as we have seen with FIFA and now IAAF, the corruption isn’t left to just the athletes and their managers alone. Instead, it has spread insidiously to the halls of power where the men and women tasked with the sport’s governance have fallen prey to the very same human frailties that challenge us all. And new leadership alone isn’t going to disinfect the rat’s nest.

At some point this has to redound to the athletes themselves. They have to take the hard bristle brush to the dirty among them, because in the end they are the ones who are not coming out of this very clean.


14 thoughts on “THE DRUG DILEMMA

  1. Toni – I always enjoy your posts. Not a fan, though, of the comparison to prohibition and the suggestion to give up. People speed in their cars all the time, but nobody seriously suggests we should remove stop signs and traffic lights. We just need more cops on the beat. I’m not interested in having this sport turn into a pharmacological competition.

  2. All of these years covering a sport and you choose to blame the athlete. What about the national federations that encouraged and condoned it? What if you fined NBC for broadcasting an event with a drug cheat in it? What if you imprisoned the corporate sponsor of a drug cheat? No. We can’t have that. Let’s dangle fame & fortune in front of some poor, talented kid and then persecute him for a bad decision. Half of the spectators are abusing everything from Rolaids to OxyContin. The position that you are presenting seems a little bit of a high horse. I think instead that athletes offended by the offenders should just walk away from the sport. Let the dirty ones have it. In a world of 7 billion taking our lessons from the war machine is short-sighted. We don’t need to force conformity. I used to love the sport of cycling – but not any more. The sport does not miss me and I do not miss the sport. I did not lose interest because of the drug users and crooked federations. I just got tired of the press and the harsh opinions of people who had never even played that game.

    1. Not blaming the athletes in the least. Systems create realities, and the athletes are brought into a corrupt system. By removing the prohibition, which has shown to be unenforcable, we at least remove the hypocrisy that undermines the entire enterprise. Thanks for reading and responding.


  3. Hi Toni, the only answer is to assess a lifetime ban on an athlete if they are positive for any drug on the banned list. Depending on the jurisdiction of the infraction a jail sentence would also be a good thing.
    The reason I am against legalizing all drugs is because it would nullify all previous results established by clean athletes in the past. Of course in resent years it is very hard to determine if some of these results are real or not.

  4. Toni, I really like the hard bristle brush analogy. Is there one big enough to cover Shobukhova? I am imagining several athletes/agents actually attempting that! That, or going straight to her bank/bankers. Or scrubbing Diack (he’s more easily caught, since he is older and heavier), might even be a new sport in the making.

  5. Lifetime bans and jail time, those are good starts and should have been enacted long ago. If accepting PEDs as mentioned, then register the athlete’s supplier of the product so that criminal charges can be brought after the first few deaths.

      1. The drugs are controlled for a reason, and there is also the fraud aspect of it. Caveat emptor has a supplier somewhere, and if an athlete is threatened with jail time, perhaps those sources will be divulged. Many have turned a blind eye, read Fran Tarkington. Does buying an NFL jersey make one complicit in what Fran says? It all seeps in, drawn by money. But without much repercussion, why should the cheats and suppliers worry?

  6. Tony – The Shobukhova case is a complete travesty. By my accounting, she should be paying back $1.35 million to a total of 31 athletes who finished behind her in her drug-enhanced races. At the top of the victims’ list is Irina Mikitenko, out $532,500, followed closely behind by Edna Kiplagat, out $507,000. I represent Edna, plus another four women off that list.

    And yet, not only did WADA reduce Shobukhova’s suspension period, the IAAF ignored its very own rule book (Competition Rule 40.12.a) and allowed her back in the sport without needing to repay a dime of her ill-begotten financial gains. The announcement of her return was conveniently buried in a WADA press release in the week before the Beijing World Championships, seemingly timed to assure that the T&F media’s attention was turned to other more positive pre-championship stories. To my knowledge, the IAAF has yet to offer a public explanation for why rule 40.12.a was waived in this case.

    I think both Irina and Edna had made an uneasy peace with the loss of so much of their earnings; but, at least they had the satisfaction of knowing Shobukhova was banned. The reinstatement and the IAAF’s agreement to let Shobukhova keep all that loot has simply rubbed salt in the wounds of all 31 women on that prize list.

    In some circles, this would be referred to as aiding and abetting a crime…

    1. There is no accountability whatsoever. All these international bodies are extra-national, and it is only because Diack was caught inside France that he was arrested. But as a traveler of the world you know very well that these folks don’t even look at such matters as corruption, only the way business has always been conducted. We fool ourselves to think otherwise. Fair play is for fools. Just wish there was some form of public shaming that could be brought into play. But they seem beyond shame, as well.

      This would be the perfect time for the Abbott World Marathon Majors to wash their hands of the IAAF and start their own agency to govern their events and any others that might choose to join them. Why they need the IAAF is beyond me. They get nothing for the privilege as the sport takes hit after hit. Good luck in getting your athletes their due.

  7. Where did it begin? Where does it end? Perhaps, in addition to sex divisions and age groups, we will need enhanced and non-enhanced divisions?

    Everyone gets a medal these days, anyway, so how about if we just do away with competition all together?

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