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Ban the Cheats!

Aug 11, 2014  - James Parrack

Berlin has a history of East vs West, and as the European Championships get underway in the city today, the noise is as loud as ever as the words "Russia" and "drugs" are too closely connected. It's not just swimming that has been in the news for doping, with Usain Bolt weighing in at the Commonwealth Games recently saying anti-doping officials are sending a "Bad message to the Sport" after Tyson Gay's one year ban for taking an anabolic steroid.

Following from Casey Barrett’s The Russians are Dirty (Aug 1) this article will not attempt to uncover misdeeds, add new findings, or point more fingers. Rather, it will act as a cautionary tale for those whose reaction to a positive test result is to say, “BAN THE CHEATS!”

To take the view that any positive drugs test necessarily requires a lengthy ban ignores a bigger reality in the world we live in and in particular ignores the legal and ethical imperative that the punishment should fit the crime. Should you, for example, be banned for life from driving if you are 1km/h over the speed limit? Not all positive tests are equal. There is a difference between the systemic doping problems in East Germany and China, and an over the counter cold remedy. Very little in this world is black and white and in the realm of drugs in sports, we need to see the shades of grey.

Here are two examples that we should bear in mind every time we hear of a positive test, and with Scotland hosting the Commie Games this summer, the first of these cases is particularly relevant.

British skier Alan Baxter, of Scotland, won a bronze medal in the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake city, in the slalom. This was a very big news story; a non traditional winter sport nation winning an Olympic medal in a technically difficult event. It was the first alpine skiing medal ever for Britain and in all probability, with no funding for skiing, the last (in the traditional alpine skiing events).

But, Baxter tested positive and was stripped of his medal. It turned out that Baxter had used a nasal decongestant that in the UK is clean, while the US version of the very same brand may return a positive test. Baxter's case also found that the sample was tested in LA, which had the most sophisticated testing equipment in the world at the time, and was the only laboratory with equipment so sensitive that it could detect such minute traces (20 millionths of a gram) of the banned substance methamphetamine.

The panel hearing the case was unanimous that there was no possible performance advantage, nor any intent to gain one, and yet WADA, and ultimately the IOC, weighed heavily with the view that any positive test at the Olympics necessarily required the action to annul the result, hand down a ban, and award the medal to another athlete.

Some months later Baxter was cleared but the IOC never reverted to the original race result and the Scot still has no Olympic bronze medal to show his kids and to inspire a generation of young skiers.

The sensitivity of the testing equipment was also a factor when French tennis player Richard Gasquet tested positive for cocaine in 2009. The tabloid reaction was that this was a rich kid living the high life and getting what he deserves. And when his defence was that he kissed a girl in a nightclub and that was what caused the positive test, many laughed at the lengths to which some will go to protest their innocence.

Except in this case, none of his fellow professionals on tour thought this made any sense at all. Gasquet wasn't a social drug user. Moreover, in the investigation it was revealed that the amount of cocaine that Gasquet would have had to ingest to produce his positive result was the cocaine equivalent of one grain of salt. The girl freely admitted she had taken cocaine that night and the pair had certainly kissed.

Once again, a microscopic amount of a banned substance, with zero performance benefit, and an agreement from all sides that the drug was ingested by accident and with no intent to gain an advantage. WADA and the ITF pushed for a 2 year ban, and the Court of Arbitration for Sport handed down a ban of two and a half months.

And this is the problem. There could be more to the story, but we don't always take the time to uncover it. Yes, if you take any cold remedy on sale in your local chemist, you will probably test positive the next day, which is why the Russians have cause for concern. Certainly the Efimova case is odd: an elite athlete with any number of help lines to call to check any product she is using, in an experienced swim programme that has already had two positive results in recent years and of course the community is going to ask questions.

The recent rash of Russian positives is concerning for a sport that has experienced East Germany, (and presumably similar abuses from elsewhere in the Soviet Union not as meticulously recorded and filed), then China, then the suits, and now questions over Russia. The sports world needs WADA, it needs diligence and vigilance and funding and lengthy bans. But it doesn't need knee jerk responses and lazy generalisations to every positive case it hears.