Sport’s Biggest Drug Scandals
Jack Walton discusses current and past drug scandals in sport
Two weeks ago jockey Philip Prince was banned from horse racing for 6 months after a drugs test, taken at November’s Wolverhampton Races, showed he was 56 times over the threshold for cocaine.
Despite having many illustrious members – Diego Maradona, Lance Armstrong, Tyson Gay – to name but a few, the drug scandal club isn’t one Prince will be happy to have joined.
Prince, to his credit, faced up to his punishment and spoke candidly in an interview with the British Horseracing Authority, confirming himself to be a “regular user” of the drug. Having apologised unreservedly, he has now booked himself into a 6 week rehabilitation programme and is “looking forward” to a future “free from addiction”.
The case reignites the debate surrounding sanctions placed on the usage of non-performance enhancing drugs in elite sport.
Last year the World Anti-Doping Agency outlined plans to downgrade bans placed on athletes caught using recreational drugs. Whilst maintaining a strong stance of discouraging such behaviour, the WADA justified the change – which dropped two year sentences to as little as a month – as moving in the direction of a Public Health approach, rather than strictly policing the behaviour of the individual.
The decision signified a shift in focus from WADA away from a blanket effort to detoxify sport of all illegal substances, towards a refined effort to thwart those attempting to use such substances to gain a sporting advantage. “To put it simply”, a UK Anti-Doping spokesperson stated at the time, “we’re here to catch cheats”
If recent years are anything to go by, they’ll have a big enough job with the “cheats” alone.
The long shadow of the Russian doping scandal still hangs over athletics after whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov’s revelations in 2016. Rodchaenkov exposed an extensive and sophisticated system of state-sponsored doping taking place within Russian athletics, organised around a central laboratory in Moscow, a web of lies and fraud that he had helped to facilitate.
Russia was banned for four years from the Olympics and a range of sporting world championships, although this was later halved, to the fury of rival ‘clean’ athletes. The reduced ban was said to be little more than a slap on the wrist – also allowing Russian athletes to continue competing in a ‘neutral’ capacity (although still wearing Russian colours!). Having committed one of the greatest doping offences in sporting history, they essentially had their flags taken away.
When Lance Armstrong infamously confessed to Oprah Winfrey in 2013 that he had doped in order to win all of his Tour De France titles, his defence was that elite cyclists have no choice – in a sport so rife with doping using performance enhancing drugs is a means of levelling the playing field rather than necessarily gaining an advantage.
He described “the level of expectation, the pressure” as driving him and his teammates to cheat in a scandal that would have implications reaching far beyond the denigration of Armstrong’s legacy, and force questions to be asked about the dark arts barely concealed in all major sports.
Whilst some dismissed Armstrong’s claims of doping being an unavoidable evil on the path to success in cycling, it isn’t difficult to observe a disjointedness across multiple sports in the approach taken to drug use.
Fears that ‘juicing’ is so ubiquitous amongst elite athletes that they feel they have no other choice surely suggests a tough, hard-line response is required. And yet proof of its ubiquity in at least one nation’s sporting landscape is met with a weak, watered-down punishment.
Arguably Philip Prince, who gained no real advantage, will face a tougher punishment than the majority of Russian dopers. Moreover, his case triggered the BHA to make horseracing the first major sport to introduce saliva testing in order to screen athletes – giving near immediate test results.
Naturally, different sporting bodies will arrive at different conclusions – athletics and cycling and horseracing are not directly comparable – but it does feel as though sport in general needs to quickly iron out inconsistencies in its fight against drugs. Such scandals, sadly, will likely always be a feature of our favourite sports, but inadequate responses don’t have to be.