Clean Up Sport

By Brian Metzler

Competitive Olympic sports are not necessary broken, but it’s clear there is plenty to be fixed.

If the integrity of competition is not beyond reproach, then the sports and events become hollow and without the ability to truly thrive. Just one doping athlete in a competition can begin to deconstruct what the sport and its athletes with integrity stand for, and once that erosion has begun—and there are plenty of examples that prove that it has—it wears down the entire sport and minimizes the successes across the board. Getting out of that kind of hole isn’t easy. The path to clean sport requires a three-point system of checks and balances that includes every aspect of the sport.

The first piece is an active community of committed athletes, coaches, brands, organizations and supporters who believe in the necessity of clean, fair competition so much that they’re willing to stake their reputations on it. Clean Sport Collective, and the individuals and organizations that have joined on, is one very important aspect of the grassroots movement to keep these sports on the right track. The individual and communal efforts include everything from the very important notion of embracing the positive examples of clean athletes who are training and racing with integrity to serving as watchdogs or whistleblowers to help expose those who are not. If all brands connected to the sports were involved in the movement, it would help eliminate the financial support and corporate marketing of dirty athletes. Because everybody loses—fans, athletes, coaches, the brands and the financial success of the sport—when dirty athletes are put into the limelight as iconic individuals that should be celebrated.

The second piece is a much more diligent independent anti-doping oversight system spearheaded by the likes of WADA (globally), USADA (in the U.S.) and a similar beyond-reproach organization in every country that competes in sport. While WADA and USADA have made great strides for the good of the sports over the past decade, they need to be even more empowered by global governing bodies (IAAF, IOC, UCI, FINA, etc) to work freely and independently without political, bureaucratic or sponsorship interference. And the sports need to invest more into the system to ensure national anti-doping infrastructure to ensure that a national organization isn’t corrupted and part of a state-funded cheating operation. (See Russia and RUSADA as Exhibit A.) Also, those global sport organizations need to ensure that all national governing bodies (and all athletes) are subject to the same consistent and transparent testing protocols with no exceptions. If a particular country cannot meet the rigorous drug-testing standards to the letter of the law every month, its athletes should not be allowed to compete in international competitions or global championships.

Lastly, sports must absolutely invoke lifetime bans to drug cheats. But because of exceptions, inconsistent testing systems and sometimes sponsor influences, the existing system that offers two-year bands and second chances is no good.  Handing down a lifetime ban would require adhering to the due process of justice administered by the Court of Arbitration for Sport and not a sport’s global governing body. Such a process that would include specific and very rigid guidelines of what substances are banned, when TUEs apply, how the testing protocol is administered and what the protocol would be for a positive test. Certainly, all athletes should be innocent until proven guilty and no athlete should be unjustly banned. The science, resources and incentives of cheating and deep and sophisticated—perhaps way ahead of the anti-doping process—so only the very real threat of being permanently eliminated from a sport (and, of course, the possibility to achieve success and financial rewards even after a first-time offense) can significant progress be made to reducing the prevalence of doping in sport.

I have said before that allowing dope cheats to remain in the sport is analogous to keeping a piece of moldy fruit in a bowl on your kitchen counter. Not only does the spoiled fruit look bad and reflect poorly on the entire bowl of fruit, it also tends to ruin the other pieces in the bowl. In sport, when dopers receive second chances, it leads others to either become disenfranchised or to pursue cheating on their own.

Let’s face it, there will always be athletes who try to cheat. But the incentive to do so will be considerably reduced if the imminent threat of lifetime expulsion, elimination of sponsorships and punitive financial penalties are known punishment. I’m not talking about jail time, I’m just saying get rid of the cheaters permanently and embrace the athletes who are doing it right.

Brian Metzler is the editor in chief of Competitor magazine. He was formerly a senior editor for Running Times magazine and was the founding editor of Trail Runner magazine and Adventure Sports magazine.