ESPN reported yesterday that the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) will lobby to increase the minimum suspension for a doping violation from two to four years when the World Anti-Doping Agency meets to consider changes to World Anti-Doping Code later this year. It’s an idea that may well be doomed to failure, but the IAAF is going to pursue it anyway.
Ever since the IAAF lowered the minimum penalty for a doping infraction from four years to two a number of years ago (before the advent of WADA), people within the organization has lobbied to raise the penalty back up. They’re still advocating harsher penalties. But it seems to me that implementing harsher penalties is much like a father who beats his child for misbehaving, and then when the child misbehaves again, he beats the kid twice as hard. It’s not going to work.
And in the past, it hasn’t worked. Consider: Back when Ben Johnson started using steroids in 1981 or so, the penalty that the IAAF imposed on those caught cheating was a four-year suspension. Did it stop Johnson from doping? Or any other athletes? No. It didn’t. Given the notoriety of Johnson’s case in 1988, using the IAAF’s current logic one could argue that four years was too little. Perhaps the penalty should have been eight years. Or ten? Or a lifetime ban?
Can anyone honestly say that any of these penalties is more effective at stopping doping than the current penalties? I don’t think so. And here’s why: For all but the most exceptional athletes, a two-year ban is pretty much the end of their athletic career. Unless you get caught doping at a very young age.
Why? Because for most athletes, the most effective way to stay in shape for competition is to compete. Take away two years of competition, especially in one of the endurance sports, and you’re taking away a huge amount of high intensity competition (training, if you will) that will take a long time, if ever, to bounce back from. Yes, there are a few athletes at the top of their sports who might be able to sit out two seasons and still come back in top form, or pretty close to it.
(Floyd Landis, who is currently sitting out a de facto suspension of indefinite length is one of the few who could come back to compete at such a level. Witness his result at the Leadville 100, if you don’t believe me.)
But for the vast majority of athletes, a two-year suspension is the end of the road. So if a penalty that’s already enough to kill an athletic career can’t stop people doping, how likely is it that a penalty twice as long, or four times as long, or however long you want to make it is going to accomplish something that seems so elusive: the end of doping in sports.
There are other problems in the current anti-doping system that need to be ironed out before anyone seriously considers raising the minimum suspension. First is that the adjudication system needs to be made more rational. An inflexible system does not have the tools to deal with complex situations. And most doping cases are complex.
In rare instances, a reasonable result occurs. Or, at least, a semi-reasonable result occurs. When Alain Baxter tested positive for methylamphetamine at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, the ultimate ban that he received was reduced from the mandatory two years. His suspension, I believe, was six months. Still a lot of time off considering the nature of the offense, but nothing like a two year ban. And, given the timing of his suspension, he was able to return to competition the following season.
He still had his bronze medal taken away, and the penalty was still pretty severe, but it could have been worse. Many arbitration panels would have thrown their hands in the air and said, “We think the system stinks, but our hands are tied. We have to give you a two-year ban. Sorry, old chap.”
Even if the adjudication system is fixed there’s another part of the system that needs attention. The labs and the tests. This is not to cast aspersions on all of the labs, or even all of the testing procedures. But right now, eight years after WADA first came onto the scene, one of their primary goals — the harmonization of drug testing protocols, procedures and standards — has not yet been achieved.
It would seem fairly simple. For all the tests that exist, there should be an approved method, with standards for interpretation of data that ensures the same data would lead to the same conclusion no matter who was processing the test. And beyond how the data is interpreted, there’s the matter of test accuracy. How accurate should tests be?
Every year, WADA labs the world over process several hundred thousand tests. How accurate should they be? If the current tests were uniformly only 90% accurate, that means the wrong results would number in the tens of thousands. If they were 95% accurate, the number of wrong results could be of the order of 15,000. And if they were 99% accurate, there would still be several thousand wrong results. Would you want to be one of those wrong results? Only if you were doping and they didn’t catch you.
But what if you weren’t doping and the tests said you were? I doubt you’d want to be lumped in to the wrong results category then. Especially if, as a professional athlete, your livelihood depended on it.
There’s a lot to be fixed in the anti-doping system right now, even before we get to the debate over how long a minimum penalty should be. But if four-year bans didn’t work to prevent doping in the past (and one merely needs to spend some time researching the history of doping to find out that harsh penalties did not work way back when), then why should we believe it’s going to work now?
But by putting forth the proposal that the minimum suspension should be raised to four years, the IAAF can claim that at least they’re trying to do something. It all looks like window dressing to me, while no one is really thinking seriously about how to combat doping, or even whether it should be combated at all.
Prohibition didn’t kill booze. It only made drinking more appealing. And in the end, the only thing it did do was hand organized crime a way to increase their business and their influence. Prohibiting the use of performance-enhancing drugs hasn’t stopped doping, either.
Whatever the solution to the doping problem is, the IAAF’s proposal deserves to be defeated, if only because it fails to address the real problem and offer a real solution. Whatever the solution is, going back to solutions that didn’t work in the past is no way to solve anything in the present.
On an entirely different note …
Folk/rock musician Dan Bern has a new song on his MySpace page called Bike. It’s a paen to a younger age when the world seemed bigger and life was more carefree and the possibilities of where your bike could take you were endless. Catchy little number. A good antidote for when all the doping scandals and the interminable wait for the Landis decision gets you down.