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The West meets the rest: are doping rules different for the USA and the Rest of the World?

Has the United States of America skated under the radar of doping enforcement in sport?

Editor's Pick 22 Sep 2016, 11:57 IST
NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 24: (L-R) Tennis Players Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams, Madison Keys, Nick Kyrgios, Maria Sharapova, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Genie Bouchard, Roger Federer,  Grigor Dimitrov and John McEnroe attends Nike's 'NYC Street Tennis' event on August 24, 2015 in New York City.  (Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images)
Serena Wililams and Rafael Nadal have both been named in the Fancy Bears hack

Fancy Bears. Perhaps an incongruously innocuous name for a group that have been responsible for perhaps the largest data hack in sport so far, but the Russian hacking consortium have put forward some mammoth revelations, revelations that now question our essential understanding of drug use in sport and the various ways in which it can be ‘legal’ while still being patently unethical.

Russia have been on the receiving end of serious doping accusations, disciplinary action that has been almost immediate on every occasion. It is not that this action is mistaken, given that there has been significant evidence of doping in the country. But are Russia the only ones liable?

What happened in Russia

The biggest action against Russia this year saw WADA uncover what was described as ‘systematic state-sponsored doping’, as a result of which Russia received a blanket ban on all competing in the athletics at the Olympic Games in Rio 2016.

The McLaren report, put forward by Richard McLaren, a researcher at a Canadian university, had such a profound effect that within hours of the data being released, the World Anti Doping Committee advised the International Olympic and Paralympic Committees that Russian athletes be banned from both events.

The ban was later ‘minimized', with Russian athletes who had been history sheeters but clean in recent months, allowed to compete. That was not without its own repurcussions, however, with even those athletes who had ‘returned’ jeered by co-competitors.

Prior to the Olympics, Russian athletes had been threatened with a blanket ban on all competitors from the country – including those who had not even been implicated for doping at any point during their sporting careers.

Although WADA had in fact settled on wanting to suggest a blanket ban for all Russian athletes, heads of various athletic federations where Russians had not tested positive suggested how unfair the ban had been – but those voices were few and far between, with most publicly agreeing.

Under rules that were issued by the IOC after the blanket ban idea was lifted, it was suggested that athletes who had not tested positive in the Rio 2016 window, but had prior doping convictions, would also be subject to a ban from the Olympics.

Grigory Rodchenkov, who headed the Moscow Anti-Doping laboratory at one point and was the whistleblower in the reveal, said that there had been a nationwide scam that had seen the tainted urine samples of athletes who had been using, switched for clean ones.

What does this mean?

A ban on tainted athletes would be the just solution to this, but banning athletes who had already served out their sentences was unfair – a sentiment that, at the time, had been echoed by Russian officials.

No one will deny that athletes need retribution and punishment in the case of doping – but the repercussions have not appeared to be as dire for other nationalities – particularly those from the USA.

One key name that has emerged in the WADA hacks – not Serena or Venus Williams – but that of tennis player Bethanie Mattek-Sands. The American has been one of doubles tennis' most successful names and has been having somewhat of a good year – winning the gold medal in the women’mixed doubles at the Olympic Games, following that up with a women's doubles win at the US Open.

Mattek-Sands was found to have been using a substance under the TUE exemption which, at its rawest, is a steroid, but is said, according to the doctor who prescribed it, to convert into testosterone in the bloodstream.

However, this revelation has not made as many headlines as the reams of newsprint which Russian athletes have found themselves subject to. Neither did American ace Andre Agassi, who admitted in his 2005 biography, Open, that he had been using crystal meth.

Agassi, doping and a ludicrous alibi

That had been systematically covered up by the ATP and the United States Tennis Association, both of which 'accepted’ the alibi Agassi had given them at the time. In Open, Agassi writes, “"I say that recently I drank accidentally from one of Slim's spiked sodas, unwittingly ingesting his drugs. I ask for understanding and leniency and hastily sign it: Sincerely.“

Agassi had in fact taken the drug intentionally – and also implicated Slim in an elaborate lie. "I say Slim, whom I've since fired, is a known drug user, and that he often spikes his sodas with meth - which is true. Then I come to the central lie of the letter.

The ATP - the Association of Tennis Professionals – had initially decided to hand the former No. 1 a three-month ban, but at the time believed his alibi, deciding not to suspend him.

Agassi would go on to win a Career Grand Slam following this, suffering no consequences whatsoever for drug use despite it having made headlines at the time. The ATP also withdrew its doping case against the American tennis star, and as a result declined to comment.

The only response from WADA chiefs at the time had been to ‘express disappointment’.

Given the ATP had chosen to believe the overt-seeming lie Agassi had chosen to feed them, one the ace later went on to admit had been ludicrous, one must question if world media have been selective in their reporting against ‘doping’ athletes.

One need not ignore, or let the actions of doping Russian athletes go unpunished. One also need not, as Russian federations have themselves admitted, allow those testing positive to participate. Should authorities face stringent actions, and athletes bans? The answer is a resounding yes. But the point to be highlighted here is that that action and that retribution need not be a ‘West vs the Rest’ issue.

It is in perhaps this backlash that the true nature of selective action in sport has apparently emerged. One could now question the very foundation of selective action by sporting associations internally and in their dealings with the world watchdog – which may then lose the appearance of unequivocal action in world competitive sport – a position it will no doubt not want to find itself in.

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