Thomas Barr: Doping in sport should be made criminal offence

Hurdler Thomas Barr believes that athletes who dope are essentially stealing from others

Hurdler Thomas Barr: this weekend’s National Championships in Santry will be his last race before Beijing. Photograph: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Hurdler Thomas Barr: this weekend’s National Championships in Santry will be his last race before Beijing. Photograph: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

 

He doesn’t necessarily feel robbed by it all although Thomas Barr believes doping in sport should be made a criminal offence. And that’s not necessarily being sensationalist about it, either.

As one of the few Irish athletes to qualify for the World Championships in Beijing later this month – currently ranked 10th fastest in the 400m hurdles – Barr remains understandably alarmed at the extent of the latest doping allegations made over the weekend by the Sunday Times and German broadcaster ARD.

Even if now, it seems, that report of “sport’s dirtiest secret” is not such a secret after all: the IAAF, the governing body of world athletics, describe it as “sensationalist and confusing”, based on data that’s in no way conclusive evidence of doping and in fact openly published by it four years ago.

For Barr, however, that doesn’t lessen the concern about doping in sport, nor indeed should it. The IAAF has gone to considerable lengths to reject allegations (issuing a 4,000-word clarification, to be exact), and yet there is still reason to be concerned.

Element of doubt

“I don’t think we can ever say that sport will be entirely clean,” says Barr. “Has it ever been? There will always be that little element of doubt over different things. It’s just entirely unfair when athletes end up getting medals five or six years later, because the athletes who finished ahead of them eventually tested positive. It’s a completely hollow feeling, if you’ve missed out on the whole medal ceremony, the celebration. I’d really feel more for those cheats.

 

“And there’s such a big difference between winning a major championship medal and not winning. Especially with sponsorship, endorsements, and stuff like that. So essentially athletes who are doping are stealing from you, because they are taking away money, endorsements.”

Which is where the criminal offence comes in: France, Italy and Australia have already criminalised the use of prohibited substances under the World Anti-Doping Code, and earlier this year, Germany also drafted legislation which included jail terms of up to three years for elite athletes found guilty of taking performance-enhancing drugs.

Barr suggests that making it criminal offence is something all countries serious about anti-doping should consider, including Ireland. “It could be something that might actually work,” he says. “Essentially it is stealing from someone else, in an unfair way.”

The truth behind the Sunday Times/ARD allegations that as many as one-third of major championships medals won between 2001-2012 may be somehow tainted by blood-doping practices will never be known, because none of the samples taken during that period can offer conclusive evidence of doping.

Unfair advantage

Doubts, therefore, will always remain, and yet Barr never allows those doubts to enter his head when lining up for a race, such as last month’s World University Games in South Korea, where he won the gold medal.

“No, because first I know not everyone is doping. It’s annoying, thinking someone might be getting an unfair advantage. But I’ve been involved in athletics for 10, 12 years, and I’ve got to a level where I’m at a world standard.”

Nor does he feel clean athletes can do much more about it, such as the suggestion they should boycott events or races which accommodate previous doping offenders.

Barr continues to make impressive progress towards the World Championships, his Irish record of 48.65 seconds, run in the Rome Diamond League in June, still holding up as the 10th fastest in the world this season. This weekend’s National Championships in Santry will be his last race before Beijing.

For the IAAF, meanwhile, the clean-up job after the weekend revelations continues, although they make one telling counterpoint to Robin Parisotto, the expert relied on by the Sunday Times, by quoting one of his previous references to the dangers of interpreting a single abnormal blood value as evidence of doping

“With the biological passport,” they quote Parisotto, from last year, “it is not a one-off test, where you may simply test positive and then the case goes ahead. In this case you have to accumulate a great amount of detail. You have to cast your eye over perhaps years of data to see if there is some sort of pattern that is suspicious.”

Years of data then, not one Sunday newspaper.

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