I Don't Like Mondays — November 16, 2015
The news last week that the IAAF (International Associations of Athletics Federation) has imposed a (sorta’) death penalty on the Russian track and field program for its pervasive doping programs is probably chasing a bear that’s made it back to the woods. That Russia has used doping for decades (since the USSR days) in all its sports endeavors ranks high in the “Duh” Sweepstakes.
Between the suspicions of doping and the rumours of bribery, Russia has become an international sports pariah and a high-value target for the IAAF and WADA (World Anti Doping Association). They finally seem to have caught their man, albeit decades late. Not that it will deter the Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Seeing the Americans, Canadians, Chinese and other nations get caught doping was hardly a restraint on his ambitions to restore Russian glory. To the jaundiced eyes of president Putin, the bribes and systematic engineering of his athletes as a political tool won him the prestige of gold medals, the collateral benefit of the Sochi Olympics and a boost to a national pride tarnished since the fall of the Soviet Union.
He probably believes he can outlast the bad headlines of a news cycle with a a few concessions to WADA and the IAAF plus a little whipping up of Russian paranoia about the world picking on them once again. Indeed he’ll figure out how to finesse the do-over offered by the IAAF so his track & field athletes can once again win acceptance into the Rio Summer Olympics next summer. And he’ll go back on his merry way.
He might also pick away at the increasingly anachronistic regulations about doping, a crusade for people such as Canada’s Dick Pound since the 1980s. The question now is not what Russia has done previously but what should constitute the approved medical profile of a future professional or Olympic athlete? Is it WADA’s squeaky clean standard derived back in the 198s and 90s? Or should we be looking at a more relaxed standard that reflects the current state of medical research?
When the sporting authorities first cracked down on steroids it was in the shadow of East German women with beards and deep voices or Canada’s Ben Johnson with yellow eyeballs as he ran the 100 metres in the Seoul Olympics of 1988. It seems like a SciFi nightmare transferred to the sporting field. Frankly, the idea of the drugs used then was frightening to the general population who saw Frankensteins on the horizon. So was the backstreet nature of dealers and fixers.
But sport science has evolved along with science in the greater community. Today, many who watch sports on TV have steroids, human growth hormone or testosterone prescribed to them or a family member by their own doctor. Others may be having platelet spinning for a bad knee. They see the healing properties of these drugs when properly administered under medical supervision.
So the notion of an athlete using any of these products in limited treatment doesn’t have the same resonance it once did. Add to that the advancements on the near horizon from stem cell therapy. Researchers are promising the ability to grow new joints, tissues or even organs from an athlete’s own stem cells. How will WADA deal with that?
As sports fans come to understand these onetime scourges better, they’ll begin to ask questions of WADA and the IOC. If they can see Usain Bolt or Andre DeGrasse back from a muscle tear within three weeks, not three months, after being treated with steroids, why are regulations so severe? There are no bearded German ladies any longer. The people who follow the sports will want to see the best in action.
What then will be accepted in the future? WADA no doubt wants a no-exceptions policy that covers the blizzard of drugs, stimulants, masking agents and recreational drugs it now bans. Like warriors from the Cold War they believe there is no surrender when it comes to drug use. But with pro sports leading the way, it’s more likely that we will adopt supervised drug use as acceptable in the future.
Bring the treatment into the open, supervise it and let athletes enjoy what the rest of citizens can easily obtain themselves.
Bruce Dowbiggin @Dowbboy @NPBroadcaster