There’s nothing Political about Doping

Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

from the Track and Field Athletes Association

This is an opinion written by Adam Nelson.  Adam is one of now a handful of athletes to be retroactively awarded a gold medal due to a positive drug test.  

Before you throw a pity party for poor Yulia Efimova, you should look at this through eyes of clean athletes.  All Olympic athletes subject themselves to the most invasive anti-doping program on the planet.  It’s a virtual prison, which requires you to report your every move and record EVERY supplement or medication you take.  Then, you must guarantee an hour of every day that you will be available for submission of urine or blood.  And when you do provide a urine sample, you will do so with someone watching you pee.  I don’t mean someone in the same room with you while you pee.  I mean someone has to watch the urine leave your body.

Clean athletes subject themselves to this violation of privacy to participate in the Olympic Games.  Every athlete is supposed to be held to the same standard, subjected to the same testing protocols, tested on a regular basis.   Clean athletes do this to protect the integrity of their respective performances.  We have to trust this system with our most personal details and we do so without ANY independent representation in the system or ability influence the system at all.  The system grows more invasive with each passing year, because dopers keep getting more creative with their hidden bladders, managing half lifes, and avoidance maneuvers.

But the system only detects the symptoms of the problem.  It relies on cheating to take place and, then, on its ability to detect the cheating.  It’s inefficient.  It’s flawed.  And those flaws often cost clean athletes the relevant moments, those moments that make the four years of blood, sweat and tears known as the Olympic struggle worth it personally and professionally.  NOTHING can retroactively replace those relevant moments.

So every once in a while an athlete looks at the system and says this really sucks.  They realize they are competing against someone who has cheated – not once – but twice, and received a reduced sentence without any athletes sitting on the board that makes those decisions.  The athletes input should matter more than anyone else, because only the athlete bears the burden of a cheaters mistakes.  Yet, here we are – at the Olympic Games or a World Championship – at a national team event that’s based on these amazing principles of good sportsmanship and competition, but this person, who has repeatedly tested positive, hasn’t experienced the same struggle that clean athletes have experienced to get here.  Her path was made artificially easier and the system has rewarded her with another opportunity to compete against Lily King and the other clean athletes – those who uphold the Olympic spirit.  Boy, that’s a tough pill to swallow.  It’s not poor sportsmanship to call a convicted drug cheat a cheater.  Nor is it inappropriate to hold this label over them for the rest of their careers.  They earned it.

Earlier this week a young Lilly King called out Yulia Efimova as a drug cheat.  And some have taken the opportunity to politicize it and cast Lilly as an insensitive bully.  So let’s take a look at the facts:

  • Strict Liability – Pretty much the cornerstone in the anti-doping code. Athletes are accountable for EVERYTHING they ingest, whether it’s written in their own language or another.  Supplements are “take at your own risk.”  Nothing new here.  Efimova made a decision.
  • The Banned Substance List is Incomplete – WADA recognizes that the list is incomplete. Cheaters recognize this too and often receive reduced sentences as result of taking a previously unknown designer drug, but “it’s not on the list” isn’t supposed to be a defense.  The banned substance list is only a guide.  There’s nothing new about this excuse.

Meldonium was placed on the banned substance list last year.  The drug is not approved in the US and is really only available in Russia and the Baltics.  As a precaution, the IOC notified athletes that Meldonium would be placed on the banned substance list for 2016 as early as September of 2015.  Over 200 athletes tested positive for Meldonium, including Efimova.  The rules state that those 200 athletes should receive a mandatory ban.  But the IOC opted to go against precedent, granting these athletes amnesty for this offense.

Yes, in 1992 the IOC added clenbuterol to the banned substance list, resulting in a FOUR year ban for several athletes.  Why was meldonium different?  Scale, money, and probably a good deal of politics.

  • Corruption – Last year the world was “shocked” by the revelation that Russian authorities had been actively undermining anti-doping efforts.

So in summary:  Athletes are held accountable to a system of strict liability.  Meldonium usage was limited almost exclusively to Russian athletes.  Efimova has been training in the US since she was 19, so she had to actively seek the drug from a source outside this country.  She had already been given one “get out of jail free” card, so logic suggests that she would be more careful in the future.  She was a medal favorite from a country that did everything possible to provide its athletes with an unfair competitive advantage.  No, she’s earned every bit of the harsh truth she created.

When Lilly King called a spade a spade, it wasn’t “a moment of perfect American morality.”  It was an Olympian, making a statement about her morality and the inconsistencies around her.  That’s admirable.  That’s the spirit of Olympism.  Go Lilly!

In my opinion this isn’t about any country.  This is about inconsistencies and corruption at the highest level of sport governance that casts doubt on a system that the athletes must trust.  This is about athletes asserting their opinions to drive future policy.

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