Drug cheats: who takes the blame?

Ben Johnson fires a warning, as Al Jazeera examines whether athletes’ entourages should also be punished for the deceit.

Ben Johnson lost his sprint title to Carl Lewis after he was disqualified at the Seoul Olympics [Getty Images]
Ben Johnson lost his sprint title to Carl Lewis after he was disqualified at the Seoul Olympics [Getty Images]

It’s a dirty business which is hurting sport at the highest levels, according to Ben Johnson, who won the 100m sprint at the 1988 Seoul Olympics in 9.79 secs, only to fall from grace three days later when he tested positive for performance enhancing drugs.

Twenty-five years to the day after Johnson won sport’s most tainted race – six of the eight runners were associated with doping – the Canadian stepped back on to the same track to try and rectify his mistakes.

“The act of walking onto the track as an anti-doping campaigner was a very emotional experience,” Johnson said.

“During our trip, I’d seen and heard from people who genuinely want sport to be clean and fair. I was once a part of the other side of the story, so the visit was the perfect end to the tour.” 

I simply went along with what I was being asked to do out of loyalty to those around me. So they were certainly part of the problem.

Ben Johnson, former sprinter

Somewhat controversially, heading the Choose The Right Track campaign, Johnson began the initiative by unfurling an anti-doping petition in the very place where he raced to steroid-fuelled victory.

A quarter of a century after Johnson’s downfall, the same story has been played out again, but this time Lance Armstrong is the villain. And like Armstrong, Johnson feels he was made a scapegoat.

“It changed things forever,” the 51-year-old said.

“The fact that I was caught when others weren’t meant I became public enemy number one and in the end, people were made to believe the propaganda, rather than understand the truth.

“But now, 25 years on, I can say that the effect is that I’m in a perfect position to tell the young athletes of today, that doping is a mug’s game.” 

The World Anti Doping Authority (WADA) approved this month wider powers to punish athlete entourages, should a person test positive for banned substances, a move which Johnson favours.

“I simply went along with what I was being asked to do out of loyalty to those around me,” he said.

“So they were certainly part of the problem, although they weren’t the whole problem – that was ultimately down to me. But as team members then, yes, of course they are part of the process.” 

However, World Athletics performance director Stuart McMillan, who coaches world-class athletes, calls this change a “slippery slope” and wants additional guidance from WADA.

Contradictory statements

Lance Armstrong feels he has been made a scapegoat in the cycling doping scandal [Getty Images]

“On one hand, WADA maintain the strict liability of the athlete – the fact that the athlete is 100 percent responsible for whatever is found in his or her system, regardless of whether or not the ingestion of the substance was intentional or not, or the athlete was negligent or not,” McMillan said.

“On the other hand, they are now prepared to punish coaches, and/or support team members for their roles in the athletes’ doping.

“These two statements are somewhat contradictory, and more clarity is needed to how and when entourages can be punished.”

But McMillan said if a physiotherapist or doctor was an active part of the athlete’s deceit then he felt that they should be banned in a similar manner.

Along with a raft of new measures, athlete bans will be extended from two to four years from 2015, so the offending athlete misses the next Olympic Games.

The current - and long standing - approach to anti-doping is simply not working well enough. It needs radical change.

Jamie Fuller, Entrepreneur and Choose The Right Track founder.

Johnson does not believe the solution is as simple as more punishments; he wants better education and athletes to play a major role in any repair processes.

“Here we are, 25 years after my case and athletes are still doping, so the current approach clearly isn’t working,” he said.

“By all means, hit athletes with severe penalties, but whether it’s two years or four years, administrators have to look deeper.” 

That is where the campaign comes in. It is the idea of Australian entrepreneur Jaimie Fuller, founder of sports brand Swiss-based Skins.

Fuller, an idealist with conviction, wants truth and reconciliation to lie at the heart of a new dawn in the sporting world, where athletes come clean and race clean. 

“When you look at the decisions Ben took in 1988, you realise that very little has changed in 25 years,” Fuller said.

“So we decided that our corporate values enabled us to highlight the fact that the current – and long standing – approach to anti-doping is simply not working well enough. It needs radical change.”

The campaign proposes the creation of an athlete support council and advocates sweeping change for the World Anti-Doping Agency, including complete independence and autonomy, and global enforcement powers.

“There is a crucial requirement to clean up sport at the top and enable the message to filter downwards,” Fuller said. 

“Otherwise, the very future of sport is under major threat.” 

The jury is out on whether Johnson, who was given a life-time ban in 1993 after testing positive for excessive levels of testosterone, is the right man to head this campaign.

But he offers a stark warning, as someone who had the world at his feet and then threw it away.

“Don’t do it,” Johnson said.

“Doing what I did didn’t just affect me as an athlete, it changed my whole life.

“It wasn’t anyone else’s fault but my own and although other people were involved, the only body that’s affected is your own.

“Being able to run fast for a few seconds, cost me 25 years of my life.”

Source : Al Jazeera

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