Back to Doping Square One

Take a good look at the below tableau: Such a scene of triumph and female empowerment, smiles all around, the Russian flag wielded like a blanket and the (bizarre, disjointed) logo of the 2012 London Summer Games looming off to the left.

Sadly, as was revealed to the world not so long ago – by the WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency – if that Russian flag stands for anything these days, it stands for a state-sponsored campaign of deliberate cheating at international athletics competitions through doping and other artificial (and banned) chemical advantages. The two “athletes” pictured here, track-and-field runners Mariya Savinova and Ekaterina Poistogova, were both on a list of five published in November for which the WADA recommended a lifetime ban from any further competitions. (As you will further be aware, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) also banned all Russian track-and-field athletes from the upcoming Rio Olympic Games.)

Gee, people pay billions to build facilities and throw a a high-level athletics party (OK, “competition”), invite you to come join in – and then you cheat! Not being especially grateful for the hospitality there, wouldn’t you agree? That may be why, as the Volkskrant reports here, the British athletic federation, UK Athletics, has just put out a quite remarkable anti-doping proposal, entitled “Manifesto for Clean Athletics.” Here are the introductory words of Chairman Ed Warner:

Greater transparency, tougher sanctions, longer bans – and even resetting the clock on world records for a new era – we should be open to do whatever it takes to restore credibility in the sport. And at the heart must be a proper and appropriate funding regime for the anti-doping authorities to help confront the new challenges they face. Clean athletes the world over deserve nothing less.

“Greater transparency” means recording all doping-checks and their results in an open register, according to this proposal; “tougher sanctions, longer bans” means establishing a minimum ban of eight years for cheaters. There are a number of other interesting suggestions here as well (e.g. if your athlete is caught cheating, you as a federation compensate the lost prize-money to those athletes of other federations who were honest) which you can read, in English, on the UK Athletics website. But the one that particularly catches the eye, of course, is erasing all athletic records and just starting over. Why not indeed?

“Clean athletes the world over deserve nothing less,” Warner intones; ah yes, but how many truly clean athletes are left? It’s well known that the technology to catch doping cheats always lags behind the new technology/chemistry designed to give them unfair advantage. Given this, we run into a configuration of motivations familiar to anyone who has ever studied the “Prisoner’s Dilemma”: you have to assume everyone else is transgressing, so if you forbear and stay honest, you’ll be the loser.

Tour de Farce

Does this remind you of anything? Yes! The Tour de France, that long-disgraced alleged “athletic” spectacle (and bicycle-racing generally, of course, but the Tour is its marquee event). Bikers just cannot stop doping. (I mean here those of the type seen in skimpy clothes atop sophisticatd racing-bikes; motorbikers also often cannot stop doping, but in a different way.)

It is easy to figure out why this is. Victory – whether at track-and-field or bicycle races – hinges upon squeezing out every possible last drop of human performance. For quite a while after the resuscitation of the Ancient Greek Olympic Games, starting in Athens in 1896, athletes did better and better to beat each other (and constantly set new records) through better nutrition, training and other various improvement techniques accepted as “natural.” But there had to come an end to that sooner or later, some eventual natural limit to human performance, and we can rest assured that that end has long been reached, so that these days (and likely for quite a while) it has only been artificial manipulation of blood and/or the body’s chemicals which has offered a means for ensuring one had a good chance of beating other competitors, and thereby gaining the modern world’s fruits of athletic success (money, fame, national glory, etc.).

The human body cannot perform any better on its own; it needs these artificial aids which, “fortunately,” often initially cannot be detected by mechanisms established to stop that sort of cheating. The “Prisoner’s Dilemma” kicks in; bicycle racing, athletics and all other sporting competitions based solely on individual human performance lose any and all credibility. No wonder communities the world over which actually retain democratic control over their public funding are increasingly refusing to become involved in hosting major international sporting competitions.

Ed Warner of UK Athletics probably knows all these things, likely to a much higher level of detail than I, even as I certainly am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he does not countenance any cheating among the UK athletes for which he is responsible. Still, he surely enjoys his position as head of UK Athletics, and I’m sure he is paid well for it, so whether he truly believes in what he is saying or not, he needs to try to work towards what is surely the quixotic goal of eliminating doping and cheating from international athletics competitions.

Meanwhile, Japan is getting a good head-start on this front for the Summer Games it is scheduled to host in 2020.

“Japan wants an anti-doping law” for those games. Note: Not some international law of uncertain enforcement. No: it wants to write a Japanese anti-doping law. If you’re on Japanese soil, competing at the Summer Olympics, you’re still subject to Japanese law. You try to abuse Japanese hospitality with shenanigans in 2020, you’ll have the Japanese authorities to deal with (if you are caught in time, admittedly), and you may then find yourself staying there rather longer than you had originally planned.

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