A Rough Wake-Up Call

By Mario Fraioli

If you want evidence of how broken the anti-doping efforts are in the sport of athletics, look no further than this article (note: if you’re not fluent in Spanish, you’ll have to translate it).

Here’s the CliffsNotes version: Jama Aden, the Somalian coach of Ethiopian Olympian Genzebe Dibaba, amongst other stars, was arrested a little over a year ago in Spain when police found large quantities of EPO and other banned substances in his hotel room and the hotel room of physiotherapist Mounir Ouarid, who was treating his athletes. Despite this damning find, along with surveillance from the Spanish Anti-Doping Agency showing Aden dumping used needles into the trash bin outside the hotel, not one of his athletes tested positive for doping. In fact, some of his athletes went on to win medals at the Rio Games. C’mon now!

Judge María Ortega Benito has ended the investigation and asked the prosecution to indict Aden and Ouarid (who said he used the EPO to “heal injuries, not to improve sports performance”—sound familiar?) on possible “public health crimes,” but no one seems to know what that means exactly.

Despite improvements in testing (and re-testing) methods, more clearly needs to be done. When an athlete says, “I’ve never failed a drug test,” or “I’ve never tested positive,” they might not be lying, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re clean either. It’s no different than saying, “I’ve never been caught speeding.” While that statement may technically be true, it doesn’t mean you weren’t going 90 in a 65. If anything, these types of answers only lead to more suspicion. While drug testers are catching more cheaters than in years past, savvy offenders will find ways to pass tests—they’ve been doing so for decades, as various cases in track, cycling and other sports have shown time and time again. Let’s wake up.

As cyclist Nicole Cooke said earlier this year, “the measures and schemes to fight the abuse of PEDs are inadequate and ineffective – [it’s] the wrong people fighting the wrong war, in the wrong way, with the wrong tools.” In other words, the entire system—in track, cycling and throughout sport—needs an overhaul. Can we expect to rid sport of PEDs forever? Of course not. But improved and increased testing, along with slapping weak 1-2 year bans on individual athletes, isn’t proving to be enough of a deterrent. How is someone like Mary Akor still competing and collecting Masters prize money? Tougher sanctions and harsher penalties need to be put in place by anti-doping officials, race organizers and sponsors alike to send the message that doping will not be tolerated. Guilty athletes’ entourages—coaches, agents, training partners—should be scrutinized, investigated and, if necessary, punished. (Seriously, how can the IAAF allow Aden to be hanging around Diamond League meets?) And finally, anti-doping organizations themselves need to be reorganized, if not rethought and relaunched altogether, otherwise no amount of improved testing or increased penalties are going to make a lick of difference in the long run—a point Ross Tucker of The Science of Sport posited so poignantly a few months back.

“Until the incentives of those responsible for anti-doping are changed, I do not see how the will to enforce anti-doping can be created,” Tucker wrote. “When authorities are tasked with simultaneously promoting the sport and catching its cheats, the balance will always tilt to one side. In this world, a whistleblower will always be viewed as a threat who cannot possibly be welcomed. Retests that threaten the positive veneer of historic events cannot be fully acknowledged (“Quick, blame the meat!”) or indeed done. Until such whistleblowers can be welcomed as an opportunity, and until authorities win back lost trust, progress will remain stalled. So anti-doping has to be taken away from sports, and potentially, even WADA’s structure must be changed.” 

+ Should track and field reset its world records due to doping scandals? Christine Aschwanden, Bonnie Ford, Alex Hutchinson, and Kara Goucher all weighed in on the question for FiveThirtyEight. It made for an interesting discussion and reading. For what it’s worth, I say no. What, or who, does it help? I’m dubious of a lot, no doubt, but I’m also not confident that every world record set before 2005 is dirty. And I certainly don’t think its fair to assume that every record set after 2005 has a greater likelihood of being clean, either. There’s no clear line here, and as such, a reset just wouldn’t be right.

+ Not to turn this week’s newsletter into “Doping Weekly” (there’s plenty of good non-doping related reading to follow, I promise!), but The Fancy Bears were at it again last week, leaking a set of biological passport documents that listed athletes such as Mo Farah, Meseret Defar, Galen Rupp and Evan Jager with labels such as “suspicious” and “likely doping” next to their names. What does this all mean? As of now, nothing at all, but at some point, the IAAF—and perhaps some athletes—will have some serious explaining to do.

A version of this post first appeared in the morning shakeout, my weekly email newsletter covering running, writing, media and other topics that interest me. If you’d like for it to land in your inbox first thing on Tuesday mornings, subscribe here.