Why it's time to stop enforcing anti-doping rules in sports

Leander Schaerlaeckens
·5 min read

There is no good reason to keep enforcing anti-doping rules any longer.

The war on performance-enhancing drugs has been lost. Not by attrition but by apathy.

On Thursday, the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland cut Russia's four-year ban from international competition down to two and significantly watered it down. The World Anti-Doping Agency presented incontestable evidence that Russia's sports apparatus cheated on an industrial scale during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi by administering performance-enhancing drugs to its athletes and then meddling with the samples when they were tested. When Russia was accused, it attempted to blame the allegations on a conspiracy orchestrated by the whistleblower, but the cover-up was quickly dismantled.

The reduced ban, which will cover the rescheduled 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing — and their Paralympic equivalents — and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, amounts to no more than symbolism. Russian athletes and teams will still be allowed to participate, provided they have not been banned for individual offenses, only without donning uniforms that depict their flag or insignia. The terms of the ban are ludicrously picayune, stipulating that the uniform may say “Russia” to avoid confusion on the field but only if “Neutral Athlete” appears just as prominently and in the same font size.

If Russian athletes win things, no Russian flag will be hoisted and their anthem will not be played. These are the same measures that were used in the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, but the so-called Olympic Athletes from Russia still secured 17 medals and its hockey team loudly and audibly sang the Russian anthem on the gold-medal stand.

It's all an elaborate production of punishment theater.

Yet WADA was publicly pleased for any sentence to have withstood Russia's years-long legal fight, even though it became harder to ban even the athletes involved in the Sochi scheme and Russian officials were given a reprieve on several fronts.

“This ruling is an important moment for clean sport and athletes all over the world,” WADA president Witold Banka told The New York Times.

The United States Anti-Doping Agency, on the other hand, called the ruling “weak,” “devastating” and a “catastrophic blow to clean athletes, the integrity of sport and the rule of law.” Others have dismissed the ruling as being too meek, as well. But the International Olympic Committee had, through its president Thomas Bach, opposed harsher punishment that might exclude Russian athletes and teams altogether.

So what now? Why keep pretending to care about doping at all?

Olympic athletes from Russia celebrate after winning the men's gold medal hockey game against Germany, 4-3, in overtime at the 2018 Winter Olympics, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2018, in Gangneung, South Korea. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Olympic athletes from Russia celebrate after winning the men's gold medal hockey game against Germany, 4-3, in overtime at the 2018 Winter Olympics, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2018, in Gangneung, South Korea. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

It is hard to conjure a more serious violation than for a major nation to systematically administer performance-enhancing drugs at the Olympics and to then tamper with the testing samples. Once caught, Russia went to enormous lengths to discredit the investigation. And when a punishment was meted out, it fought the sanctions ferociously in court. There was never any admission of guilt or show of remorse. Russia cheated, and when it was discovered, it kept on cheating and fighting.

If that doesn't merit a punishment more severe than taking the badges off some uniforms and banning a flag and an anthem, what is the use of any of it?

There are all kinds of arguments to be made for why it doesn’t make sense to ban performance-enhancing substances. Namely, the cheaters tend to outpace the controllers.

Cheating is as old as sport itself. At the ancient Olympics, competitors supposedly chewed on raw animal testicles because they believed the testosterone helped them. At the 1904 Olympics, a marathon runner was discovered to have taken strychnine, a rat poison, because it acts as a stimulant in small doses. Going back as far as the 1920s, Tour de France riders took nitroglycerine, the main ingredient in dynamite. After World War II, amphetamines were the rage in sports. Anabolic steroids followed, along with more sophisticated chemical performance enhancers.

For too many athletes the societal and economic incentives to cheat outweigh the potential cost of being caught to ever root out the problem. Even in amateur ranks, PEDs are common. And an experiment labeled Goldman's dilemma has consistently found that more than half of athletes would happily take a hypothetical pill that would make them a world champion but kill them within a few years.

The anti-doping movement that took hold in the 1960s, as a broader fear of drugs spread, was premised on the notion that people needed to be protected from themselves. But athletes usually retain their free will. And the battle against PEDs necessitates invasive and flawed testing that exposes a vast grey area swallowing up innocent athletes whose bodies don't confirm to squishy norms.

At issue here is not that any drug war is ultimately unwinnable — name a drug, recreational or performance-enhancing, that has ever been eradicated by anything other than the advent of a better drug. That argument is moot.

The problem is that for all the effort made to police doping, nobody in a position to enact real consequence seems to have any desire to actually do so. If the IOC has no interest in banning Russia — really banning Russia — for so flagrantly flouting its doping rules, why have those rules at all? If CAS will effectively pardon anybody convicted, or at least cut down the ban significantly, the entire effort just shuffles through the motions.

There is no political appetite to compete with performance-enhancing drugs anymore. It's all just so much performance.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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