Drugs in Sport

In fitness by adminsports

How long is long enough to punish those found guilty of cheating?

In December, the return of one of CrossFit’s most popular and followed competitions returned to the forefront of the sports’ calendar. The Dubai CrossFit Championship became the first CrossFit sanctioned event in the world and features a lucrative prize fund to accompany a phenomenal environment for this looking to qualify for the CrossFit Games at the end of the sporting year or simply to enhance their funding through a significant funding for individual event wins as well as final placings.

This year, the Championship saw the return of a notorious figure in the world of CrossFit. Australian Ricky Garard made his name in the sport by competing at the 2017 CrossFit Games; dominating his Regionals and then reaching the podium in his debut appearance with an eye-opening string of performances. Following the competition, Garard tested positive for banned substances, later admitting to knowingly taking Performance Enhancing Drugs (PED’s) for both competitions.

Ricky Garard

In the sport of CrossFit in particular, the impact of performance enhancing drugs has been a significant talking point that has been addressed by prominent figures in a series of high-profile interviews. The topic of ‘cycling’ through the use of PED’s before ensuring a clearing of the system in time to test clean at important tournaments and championships was addressed by CrossFit Director Dave Castro in ‘The Redeemed and the Dominant’; the popular documentary that showcased the 2017 CrossFit Games.

Despite a number of interviews with high profile athletes throughout this documentary, including with Gerard himself, the then-23-year-old, was later found to be guilty of taking PED’s Testolone and a beta-2 agonist, both of which are specifically named as banned classes of drugs in Crossfit competition. 

As identified by the General Manager of the Crossfit Games Justin Bergh, this was the first high-profile case within the sport and a case whereby the use of the PED’s “does not appear to be accidental”. As a result, the reasonable doubt of an honest error appears to be lost.

As the 2021 Dubai CrossFit Championship extended an invitation to Garard, the opportunity provided to the now 27-year-old provides the sport with a unique opportunity to market the prospect of whether the Australian deserves the right to compete at the top of the sport.

Like most elite sports, the debate regarding performance enhancing drugs seems to entertain a cyclical motion of relevance dependant upon the profile of cases that bring sports into disrepute. The sport of CrossFit is now entering into such a phase after having to defend its’ name when Garard was first found guilty in 2017.

More high-profile sports such as Athletics and Cycling have had to withstand a number of concerns that has brought into question the credibility of the doping institutes and the sports as an entity.

Whilst Garard finished an impressive 3rd in his return to elite Crossfit competition, the question that will be consistently hanging over his performances for the rest of his career will be; did he cheat to achieve that performance?

In many respects, it is the responsibility of the ban served to proven drug cheats to justify the time spent away from the sport and therefore force athletes to serve their punishment. Once served, athletes are free to return to their previous position within the sport; a matter which continually faces a consistent pushback.

Doping in Elite Sports

With the plethora of stressors placed on the modern elite athlete, the pressure to succeed at the highest levels of sport pushes a number of athletes towards methods of doping. Social pressure from material winnings available to those at the top of the sport are only exacerbated through increased funding. For instance, in his first return to competition, Garard earned $27,000 for his 3rd place finish with the winner, Roman Khrennikov, earning $64,000.

Moral disengagement becomes a realistic rationalisation for many athletes. With so much hearsay surrounding elements of truth, it can be relatively easy for an athlete to assume that the majority of other people are doping and therefore they are actually at a disadvantage by not doing so.

The state-wide doping from the Russian federation has proven that even the most high-profile of sporting events, such as the Olympic Games, are not safe from the world of drugs cheats with the country being banned for 4 years of international competition by the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA).

Justin Gatlin, one of Athletics’ most controversial figures returned from multiple bans, including an 8-year ban for failed drugs tests, won multiple Olympic medals after serving his time out from the sport

But were his bans enough?

Bans in Elite Sport

UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) highlight an ineligibility of 4 years if an athlete intended to dope. Variations to the length of a ban are impacted by intention and proof of minimal fault or negligence.

Being banned from elite sport for 4 years can have a devastating impact on an individuals’ reputation, finances and health. In truth however, the deterrent still allows time for elite athletes, in the majority of cases, to return to the summit of the sport, raising questions as to its’ validity as a reasonable deterrent when compared to the benefits that would accompany a drugs cheat succeeding in elevating their performance without being caught.

Lance Armstrong managed to hide his use of PED’s throughout his career and only admitted his guilt in a high-profile interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2013. Such a case highlights the potential for drugs cheats to evade capable forms of testing throughout an entire career.

For many however, the grey lines that are drawn between intentional doping and accidental negligence become difficult to disseminate. Unifying a lifetime ban for all athletes found guilty would prove an irrepressible deterrent to those thinking of doping but for an athlete that inadvertently takes a compromised supplement, there career and reputation would be finished  through no significant fault of their own.

Clearly and definitively highlighting the difference between the two in any given case becomes a task filled with potholes and obvious flaws, resulting in a system that can not be definitively trusted to deliver consistent and truthful results.

For Garard, at 27, he still has the prime of his career to look forward to having served his 4-year ban.

Whilst four years may seem to be a considerable period of time away from elite sport, the damaged reputation appears to have far more of an impact on an athlete and therefore serve as a more significant deterrent to doping than an olympic cycle away from the sport.