Is it time to ban all drug taking athletes from all Olympics, or remove all restrictions completely?

Is it time to ban all drug taking athletes from all Olympics, or remove all restrictions completely?As the Modern Olympics has grown, its importance and prestige has grown with it. The desire to be crowned Olympic Champion has become a burning desire for many people around the world, and athletes have continued to push the boundaries of what is possible within their sporting field in order to be the best of their time, and even be thought of as the best of all time.

With the development of modern sport and the professional era, this desire to be the best has become ever greater, with the prizes for success now not only sporting recognition but international fame and fortune.

While the temptation to cheat has always been a part of the Olympics at some level, this temptation is at its greatest and is only set to rise. Over the past few decades the problem of athletes taking performance enhancing substances, which is the most common and most difficult to detect of all the forms of cheating, has grown, with several high profile athletes giving in to the temptations that modern science has been able to develop.

It has therefore become important that the IOC and international anti-doping authorities, such as WADA (World Anti Doping Agency), construct and implement effective rules to make sure all athletes compete on an even playing field. This is not only important to make sure medals and rewards are justly attributed to an athletes true ability, but also to maintain the attractiveness of sport as a spectacle. If spectators and supports cannot trust or do not believe that what they are watching is just and fair, modern professional sport will quickly die out. Spectators must feel that what they are being asked to buy into is truthful, and not being unfairly manipulated.

With London 2012 fast approaching, the issue of drug taking has once again become the biggest focus of the games, with several high profile cases forcing us all to reassess how we go about tackling the issue of performance enhancement within sport. The fact that the Olympics is taking place in the UK has brought extra debate due to the British Olympic Authority's (BOA) strong stance on convicted drug takers firmly in the spotlight, refusing to select them for any British team at any Olympics.

This has lead to an argument between the BOA, other National Olympic Authorities and WADA, with the IOC unable and unwilling to make firm decisions over the issue.

The issue of the BOA has been around for some time, but recently surfaced over the issue of Le Shawn Merritt, a US sprinter who had been excluded from the London Olympics under recent regulations set by the IOC that a convicted athlete would be excluded from the next Olympics games, but that games only. The US Athletics federation argued that this constituted additional punishment on top of Merritt's original ban, and contravened WADA's rules and regulations, which the IOC has signed up to. The US team won its case, and Merritt can now compete in London.

During the process, the US team also criticised the BOAs by law, arguing that all National bodies should operate under the same rules, as set by WADA. The BOA, unsurprisingly, argued that it is up to them who they want to represent them, and has nothing to do with US athletics. WADA has recently annouced it too feels the BOA is acting unlawfully, and we are set to once again decide the issue in the courts, although as with previous occasions, no firm decision is likely to be made.

Whether you agree with one side or the other, it is clear that we now find ourselves in a situation that is not sustainable and one that will only make it easier for athletes to get around the rules and take performance enhancing substances. The IOC is no longer able to set its own rules and regulations for the Olympics, handing it over in effect to WADA within which it has influence but little control, while two of the most senior National bodies are arguing against each other. One actively seeking to get a convicted drugs user to be able to compete in order to boost their team's strength, the other trying to take a stronger stance against cheating and being told it is wrong to do so and even acting without authority.

The reason the IOC brought in its rules for banning a convicted drug taking athlete for the next Olympics was because currently an athlete can take performance enhancing drugs shortly after an Olympics, accept an 18 month or even a 2 year ban and still come back in plenty of time to train and compete at the next Olympics, with a World Championships also the year before to help them.

As the maximum ban that WADA can impose for any convicted substance taker is 2 years, this situation applies even though the substance might provide the significant performance enhancement for the rest of their careers, long after they stop taking the substance. For example, using a banned growth hormone substance can significantly enhance an athletes ability to gain muscles mass. An athlete would see the benefits of this increased muscles mass throughout their career, long after they stopped taking the growth hormone and long after their ban had finished.

The IOC saw this as unacceptable, so introduced its new rule. However, as The IOC signed up to WADA's rules and regulations, the IOC lost the first challenge to its rules as WADA does not allow for any variations to its code of practice. The argument wasn't that the IOC was being unfair in its aims, simply that it didn't have the authority to set this rule.

We are now in perhaps a unique situation where international sport regulators are actually making it easier for athletes convicted of taking drugs to compete at the Olympics. This seems a strange step, as over the past few decades it has been a long hard struggle against those who seek to gain an advantage unfairly.

The main argument that has lead to this current situation is that it is important that athletes are given a second chance, a chance to reform, and should not be punished in addition to the initial punishment given for their crime. As this is a fundamental principle of most modern legal systems, it is a reasonable argument to make.

The current question, therefore, is one of balance. What can we do to make sure sport, and the Olympics in particular, is as clean as possible while maintaining the principles of fair punishment and reformation. Clearly, the current balance is not right, and the equally valid requirements on both sides are not being met effectively.

However, should we really be looking at balance? Perhaps it is time to decide one way or another. No shades of grey. Either we ban all athletes convicted of drug taking from taking part in the Olympics, or abolish all restrictions and allow athletes to use all the tools at their disposal to maximise their performance.

Both of these have the advantage of creating an even playing field, and perhaps more importantly a spectacle that the public can be sure is taking place upon the ground it has been sold to them.

Where there is debate, there is difference of opinion, and it is inevitable that under the current system some people will think that the rules make the competition fair and even, and others wont. By taking out debate, the playing field becomes more level.

It also allows for a fairer system for athletes. If the rules are clear, then the enforcement of them can be fair, with an effective appeal system put in place that can objectively and independently assess whether an athlete has or has not contravened the rules.

If anyone who is found to have cheated is banned, it not only acts as a greater deterrent, but also allows everyone to know where they stand. Regulations are easier to enforce, and more focus can be placed on testing athletes effectively to find anyone who is cheating, rather than debating about what to do with them.

It will remove any debate about convicted athletes competing, and spectators can be sure that those who are competing are doing so on their natural talent, hard work and determination, and the few that aren't are more likely to be found, and if so removed.

As it is currently the ambition of the modern Olympics to compete with only clean athletes, this is perhaps the more attractive of the two extremes.

However, is the idea of a completely clean, debate free Olympics practical?

The first problem is that the IOC and WADA still need to decide what constitutes an illegal performance enhancer. There are many things that athletes can take today that enhance their performance but are not banned, and for good reason. For example, at base level, eating the right food significantly enhances performance, and if closely analysed the difference between gold and silver in many cases could be attributed to the diets of the two athletes. You could therefore argue that this is not a level playing field, however it is impossible to regulate, mainly because what is the 'right' diet is not known and would be completely impossible.

While diet is fairly clear cut, there are other substances, such as creatine and caffeine, that are not. Creatine is a naturally occurring substance in the body, but unlike others such as growth hormones, there isn't any regulation. Caffeine can clearly have significant performance enhancing effects, and is not a naturally occurring substance in the body nor an essential part of the diet. However, its use is allowed, mainly due to the extreme difficulty in regulating a substance found in common use food and drink.

These are just a few examples of many where it is impossible, or undesirable, to regulate what an athlete can or can't do.

If there will always be this grey area and debate about what is acceptable to take and what is not, then the question should be asked what is the point. If there is always going to be performance enhancement, and we just distinguish between what we think is acceptable and what is not, perhaps it would be better not to distinguish at all, and allow athletes a free reign on what they are able to do.

This has a number of advantages. It will allow athletes to be open and honest about what they are doing in training, and in turn ensure that spectators know on what basis the sport they pay to watch is being conducted.

It will also throw off the shackles and allow humanity to explore what is truly possible. With a key component of the Olympic ideal being celebrating humanity's ability and seeking its limits, this would be an attractive proposition to many.

It would also allow the IOC, WADA an other authorities to have greater control, and offer better protection for their athletes. Currently, many athletes, and in most cases they are young athletes, find themselves caught up with and influenced by outside sources that have their own interests at heart and not the athlete's, often placing them in dangerous situations and find themselves taking substances that are harmful to their overall health. By opening up all the options, athletes can be better steered to what is safe, and be protected from taking substances that could cause them long term damage. Also, by going to the IOC or WADA for the supply of substances, it would quickly break up the underground, risk taking groups that currently look to influence, manipulate and supply athletes with performance enhancers.

However, there are a number of negatives, some of which are obvious. It would go against many founding principles of the Olympics, and also create a greater disconnect between the athletes and the general public. This disconnect has been increasing for some time in modern sport and possess a great risk to its future, so enhancing it would not be desirable.

Further, the Olympics would potentially become a case of who can afford the best drugs and the best research, making money even more of a factor than it is now in who wins and who doesn't. It would in effect just replace one uneven playing field with another.

It also poses significant risk to young people. There would be become a need for aspiring young athletes to start taking substances earlier and earlier, and while some substances may be safe to take when largely already developed, taking them during or even before vital physiological and psychological development stages of childhood poses significant long term health risks.

It seems for good reasons, then, that a complete opening up of substance taking is not desirable, and that a complete ban on substance taking is impossible due to the blurred line between what is an acceptable substance to take and what is not.

Unfortunately, it is inevitable that we will have to continue to debate and find a balance, decide what are acceptable performance enhancers and what are not, and then decide what punishment to hand out to those who break the rules.

Clearly, however, the current situation is unacceptable, with far too much ambiguity not only over what the rules are, but who has the authority to set them. The current regulating authorities must decide between them what areas they each cover, and then agree on what the rules will be, with fair and effective systems of regulation to implement them. Athletes need clear rules to follow, and the public need to feel these rules are fair, just and are being implemented effectively. Currently, none of these requirements are being met.  


R. Harris

Bsc Physical Education, Sports Science and Physics, Loughborough University Founder