Banned from the Olympics but not from all – Should the BOA be allowed keep its drug cheats ban?
The weather is starting to warm up, spring is nearly here and before long the long summer days will be upon us. To sporting fans everyday is now a countdown to the greatest sports spectacle on Earth – the Olympics. Test events have already been held in the fabulous arenas that have been specially built. Qualifying points are being racked up, and timings achieved. In many events the actual athletes won’t be announced until May or June, so who will be competing is still a mystery. In some cases being a ‘qualified’ athlete isn’t as simple as pure sporting ability.
Until last October it wasn’t much of an issue. If you were a British sports person and you had previously been convicted of a doping violation and served a ban of more than six months then the British Olympic Association (BOA) deemed you ineligible for selection for the Olympics. Basically, if you’re British and a drugs cheat you can’t compete in the Olympics. However, after the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled in favour of the US sprinter, LaShawn Merrit, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) began looking at the BOA’s ‘selection’ policy and deemed it ‘non-compliant’.
WADA was created in 1999 in order to have an universal and global approach to the doping problem affecting all areas of sports. It is not a police force or an enforcement agency but acts to research, educate and issue the list of prohibited substances and practices. In 2004, just before the Athens Olympics, the World Anti-Doping Code was introduced. It was signed and adopted by over 600 sporting organisations and federations, of which the BOA is one.
The background to the Merritt case is that in early 2010 Merritt tested positive on three separate occasions for the banned steroid Dehydroepiandrosterone. He claimed it was through his use of the over-the-counter penis enlargement product, ExtenZe. In other words Merritt had been trying to enhance his very personal appearance rather than enhance his sporting abilities. He accepted the 21 month ban handed to him, however what he couldn’t accept was that an International Olympic Committee (IOC) rule meant he would not be allowed to compete in the 2012 Olympics. ‘Rule 45’ of the IOC states that any athlete banned for six months or more is prohibited from competing at the next Olympics. For any top-class athlete this would be a blow but Merritt, to the embarrassment of the IOC, is the reigning 400m Olympic champion & a quarter of the US gold medal winning 400m relay team from the 2008 Olympics. With the backing of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) Merritt took his case to CAS and won.
Just before the 2008 Beijing Games the IOC introduced ‘Rule 45’ or the ‘Osaka Rule’, which prevented athletes banned for more than six months from competing in the next Olympics. From its inception it has always been vulnerable to a legal principle known as non bis in idem. This means that no one should be tried twice for the same offence. If an athlete had already been punished for a drugs offence in theory they shouldn’t be punished again by being banned from the Olympics if their ban had been served. In sporting terms the additional sanction went against WADA’s code of a maximum two-year ban which was agreed in 2004. It took though an athlete who was technically guilty of doping, but not necessarily of drug cheating, to challenge it.
The BOA ruling had come in 1992 after the mandatory 4 year ban was lowered to just 2 years. Their main argument is that the life ban for drug offenders is in fact a ‘selection policy’ and not a sanction. It is a stance that their Chairman, Lord Colin Moynihan, believes will win through, “We are going to CAS to try and win this case, we believe we need to do so on behalf of clean athletes and reflect the 90-95% of athletes who consistently ask for this selection policy.
“We have full autonomy to decide who we are going to select and we believe that this is a very strong position in front of CAS. This is not a sanction or double jeopardy, this is a selection policy. The right of team selections is the basis for a strong appeal.”
In terms of athlete support the BOA certainly has many. Sir Chris Hoy the four times Olympic cycling champion wrote a piece in the Daily Telegraph in December 2011 on the subject. In it he states, “There is no grey area on this subject for me. I completely support BOA in its stance and, quite frankly, I have always been pretty bemused that the rest of the sporting world hasn’t followed suit. Are we serious about fighting against drugs in sport or not?”
The swimmer, Rebecca Adlington, who won two gold medals at the Beijing Olympics, reacted to the news of WADA bringing a case against BOA by writing on Twitter, “Can’t actually believe this story! Whatever happened to a drug-free sport?” Her feelings were backed up by heptathlete and Olympic bronze medallist, Kelly Sotherton, who wrote on Twitter, “People who dope are ‘stealing’ from others, deception and fraud. These people have regrets I understand but a price still has to be paid and the price is no Olympics!”
Another former Olympic champion to throw his backing behind the BOA is the decathlete, Daley Thompson. Writing an impassioned but at times inaccurate piece in the Daily Mail earlier this month as part of the build up to the case hearing, he wrote, “If the BOA lose then the likes of sprinter Dwain Chambers and cyclist David Millar will be free to compete at London 2012.
“My views are clear: they should not be at this Olympics or any Olympics. I’d just like someone to explain to me if you’ve got an exclusive club (the BOA) and you’ve got certain rules (a lifetime exclusion for serious offenders) and one of your members goes against those rules, why can’t you throw him out? Why should international law make you take him back?”
Importantly for the BOA they have the backing of arguably Britain’s greatest ever Olympian, five-times Gold medal winner, Sir Steve Redgrave. When talking about the case Redgrave says the BOA is right not only for the athletes competing in the 2012 Olympics but all future Olympics, “…the BOA by-law sends a message out to every child and young person in our country; that physical endeavour, determination, courage and commitment are the cornerstones of achieving in life not just in sport. It is this fundamental message that I feel so strongly that the BOA by-law must remain as a symbol of clean, fair and honest competition.”
At the heart of the argument that some of the athletes use to justify the BOA selection policy is that the Olympics is a special event and one that should not be tainted by the presence of drug cheats. While British athletes may not have been able to compete in the Olympics due to their drug taking pasts, they have still been selected for British teams in World and European championships and for their individual nations in the Commonwealth Games. What though, makes the Olympics so special, so much more important than any other sporting event?
The Olympics may be held to be a sporting showcase for all things fair and peaceful, without the burden of politics, religion or racism, but its history does not suggest this to ring true. Over the years the Olympics has been used an excuse for various political platforms. It is not a ‘squeaky clean’ event. Nazis, Communist and Socialist states, human rights or indeed wrongs, and terrorist factions have made headline news instead of sporting achievements. Countries routinely use the Olympics for their own political aims by boycotting, and thus denying innocent and dedicated athletes the chance to compete. Do Olympic ideals even exist any more? Has the relentless grind of the commercial world taken the place of the original and true Olympic spirit? Perhaps it just some of the athletes who have this rose-tinted view of an Utopian sporting festival.
In a BBC interview in January 2012, cyclist and three-times Olympic gold medallist, Bradley Wiggins was asked his views on the abstract issue of the ethics surrounding whether fellow GB cyclist David Millar should allowed to compete considering his doping past. Wiggins replied rather uncomfortably, “To have David in the team purely from a performance point of view would be fantastic. But from a moral point of view, from what cycling is trying to achieve, from what cycling’s been through the last few years, for what the Olympics stand for he should never do the Olympics again.”
Throughout its history the Olympics has been tainted by drug taking. The most famous still remains Ben Johnson’s steroid fuelled sprint against Carl Lewis at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Yet as far back as 1904 athletes were using chemical means to achieve Olympic glory. The British born winner of the marathon, Thomas Hicks, was given a concoction of strychnine, brandy and egg whites by his coach. Hicks was declared the winner after the first man to cross the line, Fred Lorz, was disqualified when it was discovered he had taken car ride for part of the course. The use of performance enhancing drugs was not actually banned by the IOC until 1967.
The athletes who don’t support the BOA policy seems to fit into two categories: those think that Great Britain should not be stubbornly standing as a lone nation against doping, and those who believe in redemption. One of those who wishes the BOA was in line with every other nation is Marathon World Record holder, Paula Radcliffe. This is not to say she is soft on the issue of drug testing, in fact quite the opposite. Over the years Radcliffe has been very vocal in her condemnation of drug cheats and is an advocate of blood-testing. Radcliffe said in October 2011, “It does seem unfair to have people in this country [who are banned] as if they were in other countries they would have that right to complete in the Olympics.
“As an athlete who works really hard and puts a lot of hard work in every time you compete against someone who has served a drugs ban that is a bit of a kick in the teeth because you are thinking, ‘Are they clean now or are they getting some advantage even if they are clean now.’ (But) it isn’t fair to penalise one athlete and allow the others.”
One of the athletes who is in disagreement with the BOA is the British athletics team captain, Christian Malcolm. While Lord Moynihan claims to have the support of ’90-95%’ of British athletes, Malcolm states he has not been asked by the BOA about his views of the subject nor those of other athletes he knows. He is also worried about the BOA’s position as a lone police force against drug taking, “The fear is that the BOA – if they do win and do break away as an organisation then other countries decide to follow their own rules, and I don’t think that’s right. Let WADA deal with it they’re the professionals.” Malcolm also suggests that lifetime bans are wrong, especially for those who have tried to turn away from their doping pasts, “Some people may have changed their mind. Don’t get me wrong. If athletes have taken drugs they should be punished, no two ways about it. But I think, at the same time, there should be room for redemption.”
One of the strongest advocates for the need for redemption is the 2000 Olympics Triple Jump champion, Jonathan Edwards. When interviewed on radio for 5Live in December 2011 Edwards put his views across clearly, “I don’t agree with the British Association’s by-law. I certainly believe in a second chance, a chance of redemption.” As a former Olympic, European, Commonwealth and World champion and World Record holder, Edwards knows a thing or two about the merits of sport and its wider implications and effects. He also reflected, “The Olympics and indeed the Paralympics, is more than just sport, it’s about a set of values. I’s a shop window for some of the most important values in life – excellence, friendship and respect and some things like this. I also think that a second chance is a really important human value. I would include that within that and say at an Olympic Games you should make the opportunity for people to come back and have a second chance.” Edwards, who is a member of the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (LOCOG), puts the case for a four year ban for drug offences which would mean at least one Olympic Games would be missed.
Edwards spoke to 5Live after it ran an interview with BBC Sports Personality of the Year, Mark Cavendish. As the current World Road Race Cycling Champion, Cavendish is hotly tipped to win the first gold medal for Team GB. When he won the World Championship in Copenhagen in September 2011 David Millar was the road captain for the British team. Millar though is one of two names constantly linked to the subject of banned British athletes. Cavendish said, “He’s redeemed himself. Dave cheated but he realised what he did and learned a lot. He’s a massive anti-doping campaigner.”
For all the noise the BOA make about protecting athletes and making sport fairer and cleaner for all concerned is this actually a true representation of their ‘achievements’? Since the BOA rule was introduced in 1992 it has been applied 32 times and successfully overturned 29 times on appeal on ‘mitigating circumstances’. Lord Moynihan has called WADA’s rules as ‘toothless’ but with such a high appeal rate surely it is the BOA who are the ‘toothless’ ones. In this respect would it make any difference if the BOA were forced to concede ‘By law 25’ or do they just use it as a facade to promote a ‘holy than thou’ image?
If the BOA do lose their case Lord Moynihan stated in December 2011 that, “If (the bylaw) is overturned by the lawyers, you can rest assured they will be fully embraced into the team, they will have the same treatment as anybody else and we wish them luck.” This seems a strange statement make – if the BOA win then all drugs cheats are still evil and a threat to other athletes. On the other hand if the BOA lose then suddenly everybody is welcome and we will try to forget the past; just try and get us some medals (but please do it quietly).
If CAS do rule that the BOA is ‘non-compliant’ with WADA’s code the two British athletes likely to benefit are the aforementioned David Millar and sprinter Dwain Chambers. Millar has never actually challenged the BOA ruling himself as he stated he had accepted the ruling and had neither the money or energy to mount a legal case. He also said he did not wish to be ‘vilified’ any more. While Millar has never been tested positive for doping he did confess to taking EPO three times after he was arrested by French police in 2004. When Millar started racing professionally in France he tried to shun the drugs culture that surrounded him, however a combination of team pressure, the need to win to accumulate points and monetary bonuses, problems in his personal life and illness and injury exacerbated by being an endurance cyclist eventually broke him down.
Since this return from his two year suspension in 2006, Millar has been a vocal campaigner about drugs in sport and is now one of WADA’s ambassadors. Millar says the BOA sees the issue of drug cheats in ‘black and white’ terms and this should not be the case, “There is a place for lifetime bans in sport, but I’d like to think that what I’ve been through is a shining example of the worth of second chances. Every case needs to be judged on its own merits. I don’t think every athlete should be treated the same way. Imagine you have a 16 year old who’s been given something by their coach and goes positive and receives a lifetime ban. That doesn’t seem fair. But maybe, if you have a 34 year old multi-millionaire who lives in Monte Carlo, with a team of medical staff, who goes positive, maybe they should get a lifetime ban for the first offence. But these two cases are so different that they can’t be judged the same.”
While Millar feels universal lifetime bans are unfair to certain individuals he also looks at the whole nature of drug taking and what can be done to help stop it in the future, “A lifetime ban for a first offence does not encourage rehabilitation nor education – two things that are necessary for the future prevention of doping in sport.”
Ironically Millar states in his autobiography, Racing Through The Dark, that he decided to stop doping for good in 2004 when he became part of the GB Olympic Team for the Athens Olympics that year. Dave Brailsford, the GB Team Performance Director, convinced Millar that a professional cyclist could be clean and the seedy drugs culture of French professional cycling teams was not the only option. When Millar was arrested he was actually dining with Brailsford in a restaurant in Biarritz. While Brailsford has stuck by Millar and picked him for Team GB in World Championship Races, he has admitted that Millar was never considered for the British professional cycling flagship of Team Sky because of his doping past.
On asked about the thorny issue of the BOA ban, Brailsford has had to take the ‘go with the flow’ view as someone with the job title of British Cycling Performance Director, has to, “It’s not down to Dave Brailsford to decide on behalf of the world of cycling. But if he’s available, he’s available. Yes, of course.
“It is difficult to take just one approach. Most people would agree that, if you go out of your way to make such an effort to have a blood transfusion or take EPO, then a life ban seems to be proportionate.
“But the WADA code is very important as a global fight against doping and it is important that we have a consistent code.”
After Millar’s performance as Road Captain at last year’s World Championship Road Race, and Cavendish’s own desire to have him in the Olympic team it would seem he would be one of the athletes who would be ’embraced’ into the team.
The second British athlete, Dwain Chambers, is a more controversial figure. By 2002 Chambers was regularly posing sub 10 second times for the 100m, yet he was still being roundly beaten by a number of other sprinters. He made the decision to relocate to California and started working with coach Remi Korchemny and nutritionist Victor Conte. Chambers tested positive in 2003 and later Korchemny and Conte were investigated as part of the BALCO doping investigation. This led to a number of athlete being banned, most notably Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery. Other the years Chambers has tried a number of ways to make a comeback into sport through the NFL Europe and rugby league but it is athletics that ultimately keeps luring him back. Unlike Millar though, Chambers it seems has few supporters in sporting circles.
In 2008 Chambers made a challenge against the BOA’s lifetime ban. Rather than use the argument that it went against WADA’s code Chambers used a more personal motive. When taking his case to the High Court he stated that the BOA by-law was an unfair restraint of trade. Chambers lost the case when Mr Justice McKay ruled that Chambers’ right to work was not a good enough reason for the courts to overturn the BOA’s rule. Mr McKay did though say in his summing up, “Many people both inside and outside sport would see this by-law as unlawful.” The fact that Chambers left it until a month before the 2008 Olympics were to begin did not enhance his reputation.
After the ruling WADA made a statement which the BOA must be using in its defence of their forthcoming hearing. WADA’s president, John Fahey said, “This decision sends a strong message that athletes who commit serious doping violations will have to face significant consequences. The unanimous consensus found by WADA’s stakeholders to strengthen sanctions for serious anti-doping rule violations under the revised World Anti-Doping Code to come into force in January 2009 is a further sign that there is, and that there continues to be, no tolerance for cheats in sport.
So what is it to be then? A win for the BOA and their public face of zero tolerance for British sporting drug cheats. Or a win for WADA and their ‘our rules are the only rules’ approach? The hearing is on Monday 12th March in London. Hopefully the decision will be made quickly and any athlete trying to prepare themselves for the 2012 London Olympics can get on and do so. Lets hope they do their best to uphold the Olympic motto – ‘Citius, altius, fortius’ meaning ‘Swifter, higher, stronger’ but in a clean and drug-free way.