Deterring doping requires game plan from elite sports people

Mon, Jan 28, 2013, 00:00

TIPPING POINT:Self-regulation has got a bad press. And when it comes to cops, quacks and all kinds of hacks, its pedigree is obviously flawed. But when it comes to elite sports people policing the doping curse, surely an incentive is there, even in terms of pure self-interest, to mind their own backyard a lot more vigorously than they are.

Cycling of course, as has become depressingly obvious to everyone, is different. Any rider who opined over the decades that injecting erythropoetin (EPO) might not be exactly fair was conspicuous by his rarity, evidence it seems that the peloton was mostly happy with the status quo.

But anyone possessed of the backbone to take it further than his peers was left with scarcely encouraging options – from a press corps largely content to trade credibility for access, to a sponsorship train riding its own commercial rails, and an official establishment that kissed its credibility “day-day” a long time before.

Not great choices, and illustrative of how a fraud like Lance Armstrong could thrive for so long. And always with the ultimate retort that quenched most kinds of indignant or investigative zeal: he never failed a test.

How cycling recovers from such a sordid period – if indeed it ever can – will be a painfully slow process, one that can only work if honestly addressing the sort of realities likely to be unveiled in Madrid today when six people are tried for being members of a blood-doping ring.

Ducking and diving

They include Dr Eufemiano Fuentes who has in the past boasted of his work with sporting figures outside of cycling, including football. But the “Operacion Puerto” trial’s focus is on cycling only. So any headlines will focus on a sport with an already shredded reputation.

Over the years some track and field stars didn’t even have Armstrong’s fig-leaf credibility of having never failed a test.

Yet they proceeded on their merry way, ducking and diving, vehemently protesting it was all a mistake, a result of weird toothpaste or too much birthday sex with the missus, or contaminated meat that still had the marks of where the jockey had hit it. And mostly accompanied by a deafening sound of silence from their contemporaries, the ones theoretically most blackguarded.

An obvious conclusion to be drawn in such circumstances is that the offender is offside to the competition only in terms of having got caught.

But even giving them the benefit of that doubt, there seems to be a dreadful obsequiousness among athletes of all disciplines towards not rocking the boat. You would think they would be the ones with most to gain from cementing their own, and their sport’s, credibility. You would also think they would have most to gain from whistleblowing and naming names. Yet there remains a depressing culture of remaining “shtum”.

Instead there is a readiness to pass the buck – blaming media for not digging or officialdom for not enforcing, which is fair enough, but also something of a cop-out.

The just finished Australian Open had persistent tinnitus of off-court speculation as to the extent of a possible doping problem within tennis. Old yarns and suspicions were re-aired, in private, or on the cosy anonymity of social media. The name Fuentes came up frequently, alongside some of the most famous names in the sport. No one could advocate wild accusations being put out there and no one wants trial by troll. But there seems to be an acceptance from players that suspicion is inevitable, just as inevitable as their being people willing to cheat in order to win. What can you do?

Well, there is one thing: you can take the initiative yourself.

Bloods on random dates

Increasing public scepticism about drugs in sport is going to cast an even greater pall, not less, in the coming years. Too much has been revealed already for it to be otherwise. The old “sure, they’re all at it” dismissal will always be flung, infuriatingly even at those who’ve played fair and clean. And there’ll be no point talking about having never failed a test; Armstrong has made sure of that.

So here’s what this corner would do, given sufficient sporting talent, skill, dedication, youth and a waist size that didn’t begin with the digit four.

Privately organise with the relevant doping agency to take bloods on random dates every month and store them. Test them if necessary, but it’s the storing that’s important. Since the suspicion will always be there that dopers are ahead of the detection process, it is important to allow an opportunity for samples to be tested in future.

All of which might sound logistically onerous but would allow any sports figure, either still playing, or in retirement, to invite any accuser to take his pick of the samples – “you might find substances in there, but they won’t be performance enhancing!”

Is that such an improbable scenario? There may be individual civil rights questions raised but it wouldn’t have to be compulsory. And the public could deduce what they want from anyone refusing to pony up their blood.

The temptation to cheat and remain a step ahead of the testing game would still remain. But retrospective steps could be taken and, as the Armstrong case has proven, publicly shattering a reputation is still a forceful deterrent, even if it is late.

Most importantly of all, it would encourage sports figures to take responsibility. After all, it is their reputations, and their sport’s.

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