How to clean up track and field in more than 140 characters

By Ammar Moussa

July 31, 2017

Every so often you can count on someone (myself included) to start a tweetstorm that reduces complicated subjects to 140 characters. I’ve done this more times than I’m proud to admit and I inevitably miss some important nuanced point because 140 characters is simply not enough.

After I saw some Twitter discussion from Nick Symmonds on anti-doping, I’ve decided to put down some thoughts, rather than simply respond to tweets. I’m going to go through his three proposals and discuss why I personally don’t think they will work and then suggest some better, more practical fixes.

But first, let’s acknowledge what the problem is: Doping is rampant in track and field. It’s been that case for decades now. At the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, the IAAF asked 1,800 athletes if they had doped in the past 12 months. A staggering 29-34% of athletes anonymously admitted to doping. Imaging how many more athletes lied on the survey, for fear of being found out.

Despite WADA’s creation, there is testing at elite and sub-elite meets around the world and plenty of athletes are caught, yet doping remains an issue. Why do people dope? Well, because people want to make money. As long as people are making profit in sport and are rewarded for their faster marks, there will always be an incentive to dope. Any fix short of removing all money from sport and letting everyone compete simply because they love track and field will not be enough to keep individuals from doping. The incentive will always be there. Full stop.

Now, how do we lower that 29%? Well Nick Symmonds, American 800-meter hero, had some ideas:

nick symmonds how to clean up track and field
To begin, I’m going address the first and third ones because they are the most impractical “fixes” for a beleaguered system, with all due respect to Mr. Symmonds, of course.

1.) Lifetime bans

Athletes are very fond of this proposal and it is a favorite “solution” on among Track Twitter. The idea goes something like this; if someone thinks they will NEVER run again if they get caught doping, they will be less likely to dope. There are some serious flaws in this thought process.

One, there is plenty of social science that says that harsher sentences do not deter criminals from committing crime or only deter crime to a point (let me emphasize that those who dope are not “criminals” at all, but I’ll get to that in a bit). Policymaking during the “tough on crime” era of the 1990’s, especially the 1994 crime bill passed by the Clinton administration, is a clear example of how harsher sentences don’t work. Granted, the effects of lifetime bans are incomparable to lifetime prison sentences, but the main takeaway should be that harsher sentences do not deter crime (or in this case, doping).

Second–and this will be a prevailing theme throughout–is that lifetime bans operate on a premise that the global sport and anti-doping apparatus, which have fundamentally failed athletes, deserve an unparalleled level of trust. Rather than attacking the problem, anti-doping has spent more time “padding their numbers”, going after low-level athletes for low-level offenses, and trumpeting these positive tests as “successes” (for more on this, watch this great documentary). In its current state, the anti-doping apparatus does not deserve the authority to determine lifetime bans.

3.) Jail time for convicted dopers

Despite being an athlete favorite, this one might be the most impractical and most dangerous if ever implemented.

People smarter than I (i.e. Roger Pielke Jr, Director of Sports Governance Center at the Unviersity of Colorado, Boulder) have articulated why this is dangerous and the wrong way to fix doping. As I established above, harsher sentences do not deter bad behavior. While being under threat of jail time, people would not be any less inclined to dope. If we can’t trust WADA to ensure its own labs are safe, can we really trust them to effectively find those who actually dope? I’m inclined to say no.

The bigger issue about all this is who decides the jail time sentences? Which laws are athletes subject to? Which country determines which law the athlete will be punished under? What happens when different countries have different sentences? Where would athletes serve prison sentences? Athletics and politics are undeniably linked. But what happens when Russia’s anti-doping agency conveniently finds 100 American athletes guilty of doping in Russia, and jails them indefinitely without a trial or due process?

Did you know that 6 to 8 cups of coffee, about 2 to 3 hours before a race may trigger a positive test for the NCAA? I definitely know runners who have had more than 6-8 cups before a night race. I’m sure that, at any one point in college, they’ve have had more than the allowable amount of caffeine in their system. Do they deserve jail time? What about Dawn Harper-Nelson, who posted an emotional video months ago about how USADA keeps her from taking high blood pressure medication? This crucial for her health and also, apparently, on WADA’s prohibited list. Does she deserve jail time for taking medication to keep her healthy? Do we trust WADA and USADA to litigate that? I don’t. And neither should you.

2.) More money for WADA

This fix is actually semi-reasonable. WADA makes this ask every year, requesting more money from the Olympic Movement (IOC and national Olympic Committees) and governments. WADA is cash-strapped and to effectively monitor athletes in every discipline, while also engaging in scientific research to stay ahead of new doping trends it needs money.

But we come back to the same problems: WADA is plagued with institutional issues. It cannot keep its labs around the world compliant. It has proven time and time again to have elements susceptible to political pressure (read: corruption). WADA struggles with transparency (albeit, has taken some steps to remedy this problem). Before governments (and taxpayers) agree to give more money to WADA, there needs to be some demonstrable progress with the money that they do have now. Doping prevalence has, seemingly, remained steady, if not increased. WADA has not proven it deserves more money.

Practical steps

Here are some immediate steps that I think should be taken and would ultimately make track and field cleaner.

  1. Let’s stop calling those who make the decision to dope “thieves,” “frauds,” and “cheats”. While those who have raced against “dopers” have every right to be upset, this kind of rhetoric only drives a stake further in the ground and separates us from rational solutions. If we dehumanize those who decide to dope and ignore social circumstance and socioeconomic factors, we fall into a trap of proposing cruel punishments. The problem does not lay at the feet of those who dope. They are merely taking advantage of a system that fails to protect athletes and we must not lose focus on that.
  2. WADA, USADA, the IAAF and sporting bodies should all be more transparent. Global sport is a very small community, and it is rampant with conflicts of interest. The IOC vice president is also the president of WADA. FIFA and IOC has overlap in the same capacity, and we know how that’s going. By being more transparent, we (fans and athletes) can call out those with conflicts of interest, and take steps to remove corruption from sport.
  3. Let’s dramatically cut down the WADA Prohibited List (PL). There are 100s of prohibited substances and nearly half of them cannot actually be tested for. Many have no demonstrable effect on athletic performance, and are prohibited merely on “suspicion” (whatever that means). Rather than the arbitrary process, the PL should be cut down to all substances that have a scientifically proven benefit above a specific threshold (say 3%, about the benefit you get from coffee). We can help WADA be more efficient, by targeting substances that we actually know are performance enhancing.
  4. Create a three-bodied, anti-doping governance structure with checks and balances, and different goals. Much like our government is set up, we should create an executive, legislative, and judicial branch of anti-doping. The “legislative” body would include athletes, experts, and sports governance officials that are presented with scientific evidence as to why a drug should or should not be on the PL. They would be able to vote on substances, methods, and how sanctions should be levied. An “executive” branch would be tasked with the actual testing of athletes, the financing of scientific research, and accreditation of labs around the world. And ultimately, a “judicial” branch, of scientific experts and athletes that would be tasked with looking at individual cases and determining sanctions.

Anti-doping is complicated. We all know that. But rather than falling into the trap of polarizing rhetoric and irrational discussion, we need to acknowledge anti-doping has failed athletes. Before we spend time targeting those who made the decision to dope, we should focus on the system at hand which has failed its mandate.

As always, email me at ammarmoussa121@gmail.com or yell at me on twitter @ammarmufasa.