Opinion 31st August 2017

Should a doping ban = a life sentence?

After the winner of the men’s 100m sprint, Justin Gatlin, was booed at the London World Athletics Championships this month, I was asked by Canberra’s 2CC radio Breakfast Show host, Tim Shaw: ‘Should sports doping cheats be banned for life?’. Gatlin has served two doping bans, but denies ever having cheated. Clearly there was some doubt about the veracity of that denial in the minds of the spectators, and many of the commentators, but their response also serves to demonstrate the challenges caused by what McDermott (2016) calls the anti-doping ‘moral panic’ leading to the vilification of athletes for the remainder of their lives. Whether you believe that Gatlin is a drug cheat or not, the effect of ‘booing’ him serves to disrespect the tribunal decisions in his cases, and does not acknowledge the enormous mental strength it must have taken for Gatlin to have continued to train alone for a number of years before returning to the sport he loves, and at the highest level.

The second scenario I was asked to comment on this month related to what is meant for confessed drug cheat, Lance Armstrong, to be ‘banned’ for life. Jane Aubrey, for the Zwift SBS Cycling Podcast on Cycling Central, also asked me about the appropriateness of ‘Anti-doping punishments’. There had been opposing views expressed about whether USADA had gone too far in pressuring the organisers of the Colorado Classic to end their association with Armstrong. Armstrong had planned to attend the event to commentate via his podcast.

Armstrong has been banned for life and the terms of his ineligibility are set out in World Anti-Doping Agency Code (Art 10.12.1) that he must not:

participate in any capacity in a Competition or activity (other than authorized anti-doping education or rehabilitation programs) authorized by a Signatory…’ [my emphasis]

In an opposite reaction to that directed towards Gatlin, Armstrong continues to have an extensive social media following. His fans seem to be comfortable with promoting Armstrong’s notoriety, despite – or perhaps because – as set out in the USADA Reasoned Decision (p7), Armstrong was: ‘not just a part of the doping culture on his team, he enforced and re-enforced it. Armstrong’s use of drugs was extensive, and the doping program on his team, designed in large part to benefit Armstrong, was massive and pervasive’.

Athletes transitioning back into the ‘real world’ have a difficult enough time coping with mental health issues, as exposed recently in the ABC Four Corners program After the Game. This transition is made more challenging for those athletes tarnished with a doping ban. As former pro-cyclist Joerg Jaksche, at the Crossing the Line Summit, explained, the burden of being ‘googlable’ for eternity adversely impacts equally on athletes who had cheated, and those who had merely been caught up by the system.

The anti-doping community aims to protect the ‘spirit of sport’ and this is defined by the WADA Code to mean: ‘Ethics, fair play and honesty; Health; Excellence in performance; Character and education; Fun and joy; Teamwork; Dedication and commitment; Respect for rules and laws; Respect for self and other Participants; Courage; and Community and solidarity’. The wording of Article 10, set out above, allows for athletes to be ‘rehabilitated’. The term has not been defined, but presumably was intended to be considered in the context of the proportionality principle.

One possible form of rehabilitation and healing would have to include allowing athletes to remain within their sport community, surrounded by the people they have grown up with and admire, so that they can rebuild their lives, and assist future athletes to compete clean. John William Devine calls on sports to introduce what he calls ‘moral training’ so that athletes and administrators will be equipped to manage the challenges presented by the various forms of cheating to win and cheating to lose. To take a blanket approach to prevent every banned athlete from being involved in any capacity in sport loses sight of the essence of what makes sport special and worth protecting.

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