Time to eject dope cheats from sports
Baseball star Alex Rodriguez joining a list of athletes across sporting disciplines to have used banned substances reiterates the need for tougher action against drug cheats
A doping scandal involving one of baseball’s biggest stars is the latest in a series of cases in sport this year that have led to repeated calls for a tougher line on drug cheats.
New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez was banned for 211 matches on Monday after Major League Baseball named him as one of 13 players to have used banned substances, including testosterone and human growth hormone.
“A-Rod” is still eligible to play as he is appealing the sanction but his alleged use of proscribed drugs comes after a succession of high-profile scandals — and a steady drip of others that have made fewer headlines.
The wheels come off
In January, US cyclist Lance Armstrong admitted that he cheated his way to a record seven Tour de France victories. He was banned for life and stripped of his wins, as further admissions of drug-taking in the peloton emerged.
Confessions came from former pro-cyclists including Erik Zabel — a six-time green jersey winner for best sprinter on the Tour — and the 1997 winner Jan Ullrich among others.
Last month, a French parliamentary commission into doping in sports published a report naming a number of top cyclists who had used the banned blood booster erythropoetin (EPO) in the 1998 Tour.
Cycling’s long association with performance-enhancing drugs was laid bare in the long-awaited trial in Spain of medical doctor Eufemiano Fuentes — alleged to have been at the centre of a blood-doping operation.
Running into trouble
In athletics — notorious still for the positive drug test of Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson at the 1988 Seoul Olympics — leading sprinters Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell tested positive in July.
On Monday, 31 Turkish athletes were banned for two years for doping offences, while Russia — host of the World Athletics Championships that start on Saturday — currently has some 40 athletes suspended because of drug use.
Serving it wrong
There have been positive tests, too, in tennis, where Serbia’s Viktor Troicki, a former World No 12 and Davis Cup winner in 2010, was banned for 18 months for flouting doping rules.
The problem has extended to swimming, both rugby codes and Australian rules football, while Mahmood Al Zarooni, a trainer with the leading Godolphin stable, was banned for eight years for administering banned anabolic steroids.
Politicians in Germany are meanwhile looking into a report about the extent of a government-backed doping programme in West Germany from the 1950s in a number of sports, including football.
That doping exists in sport is nothing new. Early Olympians in ancient Greece used extracts from mushrooms and plant seeds to give them a competitive edge while chariot races are known to have mixed drugs in their horses’ feed to make them go faster.
Gladiators in ancient Rome doped to increase aggression and make their combats more violent for a public baying for blood.
Nor is doping using medical drugs a recent phenomenon: the use of amphetamines dates back almost a century, while the Soviet Union began using male hormones and the United States anabolic steroids in the 1950s.
What has changed is the ability of anti-doping agencies to detect banned substances, through retrospective testing and the introduction of biological passports to detect anomalies.
That in part accounts for the apparent spate of cases, as does the rise in the use of supplements by athletes.
Fighting the malice
A number of countries are also seeking to criminalise doping, given increasing evidence that the provision of banned substances is linked to organised crime.
Nevertheless, with sanctions varying from sport to sport, there are mounting calls for a more standardised anti-doping code across all sports — plus greater financing for in- and out-of-competition testing and scientific development to stay one step ahead of cheats.
World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) director-general David Howman warned in May that the fight against doping could reach breaking point if more money was not found to finance testing.
“It really worries me because I think nobody knows how much we have to do now,” Howman told AFP in an interview. “It seems that each year we get asked more and each year we do not get any more money.
“At some stage, things will break and I do not want to be there when it happens because it would be very embarrassing for everyone.”
Toughening rules and sanctions against dopers and even their entourage are likely to dominate the WADA conference in South Africa to be held in November.
Candidates to replace Jacques Rogge as president of the International Olympic Committee have also made anti-doping a priority.
But as one candidate, Germany’s Thomas Bach, said last week: “The fight against doping will never end. “We will never reach the stage where there are no doping cases. There will always be people who try to give themselves an advantage in sporting competition.”
The Biological Passport
The Athlete Biological Passport is an electronic document which contains collated results of doping tests conducted on the athlete over a period of time and certain biomarkers about an athlete through his career. Any drastic change in any of these markers will alerts officials that the athlete might be doping. The Athlete Biological Passport is thus a source to indirectly reveal the effects of doping rather than attempting to detect the doping substance itself.
Samples analysed in 2012 (Olympic sports):
Samples analysed in 2012 (Non-Olympic sports):