Athletics is once again struggling under the scrutiny that has arisen from the recent failed drugs tests from two of the sports biggest names, Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay.

It is by no means an isolated incident, with a whole host of leading figures in track and field currently serving, or recently returned from one ban or another.

The result of this is an increasing lack of trust in the sport as a whole and particularly on the athletes themselves. Anyone who fails a test is instantly thought of as a dishonest character trying to cheat their way to success, and even those who have never failed a test are repeatedly questioned about whether they are clean. This has recently been happening to Usain Bolt following the Powell and Gay revelations, the same way Tour de France winners Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome have been questioned in the wake of the Lance Armstrong saga.

However there is a big difference in knowingly and consistently trying to gain an unfair advantage in the way Lance Armstrong did, and making an honest mistake. Someone who is consciously trying to cheat should have no place in athletics. But someone who takes a supplement in good faith without being aware that it contains in ingredient is surely not a ‘cheat’ in the same way.

Of course it is only fair that they have to serve a suspension to ensure they don’t gain a competitive edge as a result of whatever they have in their system, but it seems unfair that they be lumped in with deliberate cheats and have to carry around that stigma for the rest of their careers.

The line that ‘athletes ultimately have to be responsible for everything that goes into their bodies’ is all well and good up to a point. It is very easy for people to sit back and say that without imagining how exhausting it must be for a person to have to constantly check that prescribed medication doesn’t contain anything that is not allowed, or that every protein powder or vitamin pill is clear, or even that every drink they are given at a bar or a friend’s party definitely has nothing in it that could get them in trouble.

With this in mind it is easy to see why an athlete might trust members of their team to do this for them in some cases. Athletes are required to work with, learn from and listen to any number of coaches, trainers, medical staff and nutritionists in order to make sure they hone their abilities to their maximum potential.

The athletes themselves cannot be expected to be a doctor and a scientist or even an expert on all the aspects of their sport at all times so they have to listen to people who have this expertise.

Therefore it is surely understandable that they would trust the people around them to be giving them the right substances. You don’t hear people saying that ultimately the responsibility lies with the athlete to develop the correct technique so they should not trust their coach in this regard. 

After his positive test, Tyson Gay was reported as saying that he: “put his trust in someone and was let down”. While Gay likely will always have to contend with the view that he is a dishonest athlete, whoever it was that let him down will probably not have to deal with any sort of comparable stigma.

With the money available from endorsement deals the pressure has never been greater to try to reach the very top. However, while financial gain is of course going to be a nice bonus for a champion athlete, for the individual it is the medals and records that are the ultimate goal. This is less the case for the people around certain athletes who, while they can take pride in their support and assistance on the way to these titles, will personally benefit more from the financial side of things.

Of course the majority of athletes’ support teams will be entirely professional and only have noble interests at heart, but some may not have the same integrity.

There is a further element to the issue, which is that athletes may test positive for a banned diuretic, such as was the case with Veronica Campbell-Brown. A diuretic is not in itself something that will improve an athlete’s physical performance but can be used as a masking agent for more serious substances like steroids. Therefore there can be cases where athletes are banned for being suspected of hiding something else, even if there isn’t actually anything there. They will still be looked upon as someone who tried to cheat.

Taking this even further is the fact that it is possible for a banned ingredient to be contained in some sort of supplement without it actually being listed on the product. This is what happened in the NFL when six players were suspended for taking the Starcaps weight loss pill, which contained a banned diuretic that wasn’t listed as an ingredient. How can the fault lie with the athlete here? Surely the company is it at fault.

Some would say that professional athletes, if they are good enough, should not need to be taking extra substances anyway, which may be true. However international athletes are under great pressure to perform for themselves, for their fans, for their coaches or for their national athletics programme and there are clearly ways that they can be caught out through little or no fault of their own.

In certain cases blame needs to be directed towards individuals or companies responsible for these mistakes. Also, distinctions need to be made more publically between those athletes who have deliberately cheated and those who have been caught out by an error that was not theirs. 


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