Lots of substances are routinely used by athletes so it’s reasonable to ask what counts as “doping” and what counts as “legitimate” performance enhancer
“I’m really excited to see Bolt in his final race,” a friend of mine told me, shortly before she travelled to the World Athletics Championships at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park last Saturday evening. Like me, I’m sure she didn’t know the names of many of the other competitors in the 100 m – being in the stadium to see the (presumed) fastest human in history win his final solo race was enough; the other people on the start line were meant to be bit players. Despite the shaky way Bolt came out of the blocks in the heats nearly everyone, including four-time US Olympic gold medallist Michael Johnson, who is commentating for the BBC, was confident that the Jamaican-born athlete would win.
Only he didn’t. Instead, Justin Gatlin, who has served two drugs bans, took gold with Bolt having to be satisfied with bronze. It was a big disappointment for Bolt and for the crowd. Spectators started booing Gatlin, who unable to hide his irritation put his finger firmly to his lips in order to try to silence them. It was a gesture that was only partly successful; while some stopped others enthusiastically joined in the booing chorus.
The next morning Lord Sebastian Coe, a brilliant double Olympic champion, who is president of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), was reported to be less than effusive about the result. “I’m not eulogistic that someone who has served two bans has walked off with one of our glittering prizes,” said Coe, who is in favour of life bans for “drugs cheats”. Nevertheless, it was interesting to observe that later that day Coe managed to hide his distaste when he firmly shook Gatlin’s right hand and presented him with his gold medal.
Unsurprisingly the issue of what to do with those who have been caught cheating by taking performance-enhancing drugs continues to reverberate. “Time is running out for athletics to act on the scale of the problems it faces,” was the headline in The Guardian. Journalist Sean Ingle pointed out that officially only 1 per cent of drug tests prove positive “but everyone knows it’s higher”. Indeed, Ingle then quoted Dick Pound, head of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), who estimates that the true figure is probably around 10 per cent.
In an animated discussion in the BBC studio the evening after the Gatlin victory former 1500 m World Champion-turned-commentator Steve Cram defended the right of the crowd to boo Gatlin and others who had been caught doping. But Michael Johnson, who, like Coe, thinks that those using illegal drugs should never again run in an athletics stadium pointed out that Gatlin was being made a scapegoat, in large part because by a fraction of a second he had spoiled the Bolt-as-the-greatest-athlete-of-all-time story for the general public and media. There were plenty of other athletes, competing at the games, observed Johnson, being very careful not to name names, who had served drugs bans but were not getting booed. Much better, suggested Johnson, to put pressure on the athletic authorities, including WADA, to organise better testing.
Irish Times journalist John O’Sullivan then entered the fray by pointing out that BBC commentators like Cram are guilty of jingoism, conveniently ignore the multiple question marks over “Somali-born, Brit Superstar Mo Farah” and his relationship with his coach Alberto Salazar, who, is being investigated by the US anti-doping agency (Usada). There are good reasons to take note of O’Sullivan’s criticisms. In a BBC documentary in June 2015 it was claimed that Salazar, who heads the Nike Oregon Project, had encouraged some athletes to take banned substances such as testosterone and others to illicitly use performance-enhancing pharmaceutical asthma and thyroid drugs – though it’s worth pointing out that no Nike Oregon Project athlete has ever failed a drug test.
In a highly competitive sport it’s hardly surprising that athletes and their coaches will look for something that provides an edge. Lots of substances are routinely used by athletes so it’s reasonable to ask what counts as “doping” and what counts as merely “stuff” that is perceived as a “legitimate” performance enhancer. Mo Farah, for example, routinely takes a good slug or two of very strong coffee before a race. “As I walk into the stadium track, I feel this massive high,” he wrote in his autobiography Twin Ambitions. It turns out that that for Farah and other distance runners caffeine is very useful in the latter stages of a race to counteract the build-up of lactic acid in the body. Recent research also suggests that caffeine might also enhance an athlete’s cognitive abilities – aiding the making of a split-second decision when fatigue is taking its toll.
Interestingly, for many years caffeine loading was restricted by WADA but that rule was abolished in 2004. Nevertheless, it’s possible to argue that drinking coffee or consuming herbs which contain caffeine-like substances, such as guarana, or simply ingesting caffeine tablets or gels gives those who take them an unfair advantage over those who don’t. However, athletes who might be tempted to follow Farah and others by consuming high levels of caffeine should be aware that combining it with high-intensity training depresses the immune system, leaving them susceptible to illness. As they say in Yorkshire: “You don’t get ‘owt for nowt”.
Dr Sean Carey is Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester and a Fellow of the Young Foundation
* Published in print edition on 11 August 2017