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.
Therefore 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.
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.
Today, 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.