What the IAAF can do to stop drug cheats

Chris Lewis Roar Guru

By , Chris Lewis is a Roar Guru

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    Has the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) gotten on top of drug cheating? No way.

    As the IAAF president Lord Coe acknowledged, he could not guarantee that the 2017 World Athletics Championships will be drug-free on the basis that “people will always seek to cheat.”

    While it is now much harder to cheat due to improved testing, which includes retesting past global championship medal winners, the IAAF remains an unfair playing field because there is simply no way of ensuring that all national federations behave the same way with regards to enforcing comprehensive drug testing regimes.

    The recent example of Russia’s athletic federation, banned in 2016 after a report found that over 1,000 athletes benefited from a state-sponsored doping program between 2011 and 2015, is just a small illustration of the problem as some nations (both poor and corrupt) have less desire to prevent their athletes from winning global medals.

    Where athletes reside in countries with much less stringent testing regimes, they are more capable of utilising and benefiting from illegal performance enhancing drugs before travelling overseas to compete while testing clear of drugs then subject to other national, IAAF and WADA testing.

    Some banned drugs, including testosterone, have enormous benefit to athletes. Angel Hernandez, formerly known as Angel Heredia when he was a chemist for BALCO (which supplied drugs to Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery), stated before the 2008 Olympic Games 100m final that none of the contestants will be clean with “the difference between 10.0 and 9.7 seconds” being “drugs”.

    That is why some journalists do the right thing and report both the strengths and weaknesses of the existing IAAF drug testing protocol. With athletes always seeking new advantages, there is always a need for drug testing scrutiny.

    This is despite Usain Bolt expressing anger after one reporter suggested a possible link with stronger anti-doping regulations given that only seven athletes broke 10 seconds during the rounds (22 in 2015), with the male 100m winning time being the slowest since 2003.

    Whether people like it or not, it is a fact that the Jamaican Anti‐Doping Commission conducted just one OCT between March and July before the London Olympics and only 23 out-of-competition tests in 2013, while only commencing blood tests from June 2015 (necessary to detect growth hormone use which also assists power events).

    This is why some journalists continue to highlight deficiencies in certain national testing systems.

    For example, it was reported in February 2016 that Kenyan athletes were still being advised of drug tests a day or weeks before, while an August 2017 article found that Ethiopia was still allowing the blood-boosting drug EPO to be sold freely without a prescription while Ethiopian drug testing authorities offered dubious data concerning the Ethiopian championships.

    So what can be done about the problem of vastly different national testing regimes?

    Should WADA be given more resources? Maybe, but this is unlikely to make much difference if negligent national testing bodies advise their athletes when tests are to be conducted and then allow them not to turn up or be present.

    The big problem with global championships is that it gives an athlete an opportunity to prepare in countries with lax testing regimes (home or abroad). This may include Western athletes who may choose to train abroad to avoid their own comprehensive national testing systems.

    While the use of anabolic steroids can be picked up by testers even after a lengthy break (several months), thus still constituting the biggest source of positive drug tests of all tested sports in 2015, the use of synthetic versions of natural hormones and peptides is much harder to detect given their use requires much smaller clearance time.

    The IAAF itself can encourage a more level playing field through several measures, despite the obvious importance of global championships with its associated sponsorship, television rights, and government assistance to athletes who train and succeed in such events.

    First, it can promote and improve the Diamond League further with higher prize money to provide athletes with more reasons to compete regularly, as well as providing the IAAF and WADA with further opportunities to test athletes.

    At present, prizemoney is similar for both the Diamond League and world championships when all meets are taken into account.

    $US Diamond League Qualifying meets
    (4-6 meets per event)
    Diamond League Final World Championship
    1st $10,000 $50,000 $60,000
    2nd $6,000 $20,000 $30,000
    3rd $4,000 $10,000 $20,000
    4th $3,000 $6,000 $15,000
    5th $2,500 $5,000 $10,000
    6th $2,000 $4,000 $6,000
    7th $1,500 $3,000 $5,000
    8th $1,000 $2,000 $4,000

    However, the Diamond League format could be improved to ensure that athletes have less time to cheat between events and more opportunities to score points.

    As it stands, with each Diamond League event held four to six times during the season (from May to August) with a points scale to qualify for the final event, perhaps events should be scheduled evenly apart to allow less opportunity for an athlete to target a few meets before returning home for a lengthy absence. For example, three of the six male 200m and female 100m events were held in just a two week period (July 1-16).

    To give athletes more opportunity to qualify for the Diamond League finals and encourage more top athletes to compete more regularly, a second-tier competition could be introduced where athletes also score points to qualify for the Diamond League finals, albeit with a lower points scale.

    Of course, all bidding cities would have to meet the most stringent of drug testing protocols involving various testing agencies: national, IAAF and WADA.

    Second, all drug test results should be made available immediately to the public, including the type and date of test, to enable anyone to make astute observations and recommendations.

    At present, there is still too much secrecy with regard to drug testing. For example, Giuseppe Fischetto, who was heavily involved in the drug testing at the London 2017 World Championships, is accused of keeping a record of highly suspicious blood values of many athletes for years.

    With a large number of suspicious values coming Turkish and Russian athletes, Fischetto sought to keep widespread doping quiet, as confirmed by telephone recordings from 2013 where he states “I hope this doesn’t seep through, otherwise there will be a huge international fiasco. Just imagine if the Russians’ data is exposed or the data of the Turks or the others… After all, I’m in the IAAF Commission.”

    Fischetto also indicated support from the then IAAF President Lamine Diack “in every possible way”, with Diack still under investigation from French authorities for the cover-up of doping cases.

    While Sebastian Coe (the current IAAF president) has declared the IAAF’s determination to go to court to ensure that Caster Semenya and other athletes with hyperandrogenism are not allowed to compete unless they take action to suppress naturally high testosterone levels, his desire “to protect the sport” should support the full public disclosure of tests (mostly paid by the public purse).

    Disclosing drug test results, before they are subject to dubious actions, would be just as important as penalising rogue national bodies only after leaked information is brought to the attention of the media which then forces IAAF action.

    Although some athletes may choose to compete on the circuit sparingly, which still allows them time to cheat, an improved and heavily promoted Diamond League, along with full public disclosure of all drug tests to promote analysis and solutions, can further promote the quest to deliver clean and fair track and field.

    If not, then the existing system will still provide some athletes with a considerable opportunity to achieve athletics fame by cheating to win global championship medals by staying home much more and only competing occasionally when they know they will test clean.