Guest post: What’s the point of a four-year doping ban?

Today, a guest blog from Noah Jampol.

Noah works on Bleacher Report’s Team Stream app as a content producer and editor covering the NFL and Olympic sports. He contributed to the website’s coverage of athletics at London 2012 and is a lifelong follower of the sport.

Justin Gatlin in 2005
Justin Gatlin laps up the plaudits having won the men’s 100m at the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
By Noah Jampol

This year, doping controversies and suspensions have rocked track and field.

Many of the biggest names in the sport managed to leave an unmistakable mark on this year’s World Championships in Moscow despite being nowhere to be seen.

Tyson Gay, America’s best sprinter and one of the five most recognizable track athletes in the world, pulled out of the championships after a positive test.

Veronica Campbell-Brown and Asafa Powell, two of Jamaica’s most instrumental athletes in turning the island nation into a sprint powerhouse, were left home after failing tests of their own.

And there were many more.

So, the question becomes: What can be done? How can world governing body the IAAF and the powers-that-be combat doping and create a deterrent that will actually stop athletes from seeking illicit help to compete at the highest level?

One of the best athletes in the world in his discipline of middle-distance running, Kenyan Asbel Kiprop, has his own solution: four-year bans to replace the current standard two-year suspensions for a failed test. The World Anti-Doping Agency recently championed this approach, too, suggesting a minimum four-year ban for first offenders will be introduced by the end of this year.

Kiprop knows the consequences of doped athletes pervading the podium as well as anyone. While he has the 2008 Olympics 1500m gold medal in his possession today, he was denied the honor of crossing the line first and hearing his national anthem by long-suspected and now-convicted doper Rachid Ramzi in Beijing.

See also: Three steps to get rid of doping in sport by US track and field coach Stuart McMillan

Kiprop’s sentiment to rid the sport of drug cheating is admirable, but it begs the question whether such an approach would work.

Will two additional years really deter athletes who are on the fence or firmly committed to doping? The question for athletics is not whether the punishment will be fair or adequate to sanction dopers, but rather will it be powerful enough to prevent them altogether.

Counterpoint: Justin Gatlin

If we are to look at the podium of this year’s marquee event at the World Championships, the men’s 100m highlighted by Usain Bolt, the only conclusion has to be an emphatic no.

Finishing runner-up was American Justin Gatlin, who because of his prior doping history received a four-year ban, and not a two-year one, in 2007.

While Gatlin’s career surely was hurt by his suspension and he had to consider options like American football in lieu of his potential track earnings, he came back to the sport.

At first, he faced resistance and had to compete at lower-level meets while dealing with less-than-gracious meet directors and figures in the sport. Certainly the ‘doper’ label is difficult to shake – it put a stranglehold on his earnings and opportunities early in his return.

Fast-forward six years though and, only a couple years after the end of his ban, nearly everything has gone back to normal for Gatlin. He has a new sponsor (he did lose Nike), can compete at the most prestigious Diamond League meets, and does not face overwhelming scrutiny from most fans or commentators on the sport.

Would he do it again? It’s impossible to know. There are skeptics on message boards and elsewhere who will tell you he is still using performance-enhancing drugs – or PEDs – today, though no evidence for this exists. Gatlin did certainly go through some challenging times, and it would be presumptuous to make assumptions about what his honest thoughts on the subject are today.

Still, Gatlin shows that for some of the highest-earning athletes a four-year ban can operate as a bump in the road, and not a career-ender. Gatlin made lots of money off his best-in-the-world form while doping and got to keep his medals and his earnings. Athletes like him who are on the cusp of greatness are the ones who face the highest incentive to use performance-enhancing drugs as it stands.

Counterpoint: Athletes Always Have Incentive to Cheat

Considering the fame and fortune that is milliseconds or centimeters away in many disciplines, it seems no punishment – short of taking back all of the athlete’s earnings and scrubbing them of their memories – will ever be enough to deter athletes from cheating.

In a hypothetical scenario, imagine you are a 20.15-second male 200m sprinter. At your current level, you are world-class and a strong contender to make a final at a major championship.

However, Olympic and global championship medals and records are really what you are after, if you think about it from a rational perspective. Your endorsements (a lucrative shoe contract, a TV commercial etc.), appearance fees, and prize money will skyrocket if you can progress to running a 19.75-second dash.

We are talking hundreds of thousands a year (even millions in some cases) in a limited span in your life. Track is a sport with few stars, yet hundreds of athletes who are a little bit away from stardom. If you cannot get there naturally, drugs are a readily available way to bridge the gap.

From that standpoint, it is clear that no ban would keep an athlete from cheating if they are thinking about it purely rationally. Their religious beliefs, conscience, morality and support staff could stop them, but surely it wouldn’t be any threat of a lengthy ban.

The often-floated lifetime ban would be similarly ineffective in this case as well. That sanction also faces complications with some of the more benign illegal substances (eg. Sudafed) that populate the lengthy banned substances list. Where does one draw the line between what is a career-ending offence and what could possibly be an unintentional mistake or worse, a false positive?

Counterpoint: Drug Testing Isn’t Good Enough

Track and field boasts one of the most extensive and proactive anti-doping programs in the world. There is random testing, blood testing, and the biological passport. Still, it is the opinion of many experts and followers that most dopers are not caught.

In fact a recent study, which has been held up by anti-doping authorities, suggests that 30% of track athletes are doping and only 2% are being caught.

Whether you believe the methodology or not, the widespread perception is that the dopers are ahead of the testers.

It would be naïve to think otherwise. For substances like EPO and Human Growth Hormone (hGH) it took years after their introduction to develop tests, and many observers question their ability to catch users today. Testing for substances like testosterone is complicated as well. Athletes can manipulate the system and keep their levels below the illegal limits while reaping performance benefits. If there is a way, proactive athletes and their doctors will find it.

Simply put, if athletes believe they can beat the tests they will not be stopped by longer suspensions. Until the threat of being caught is very real, a longer ban cannot solve the problem.


A longer ban isn’t a bad idea to begin with, and it certainly would do no harm in damaging the career prospects of convicted dopers. It would also ensure that if the athlete in question wanted to continue doping, their enhanced results would have to wait a couple more years. Rightfully, they would have to go through more adversity to get back into the sport.

However, such an idea is unlikely to stop many athletes inclined to dope. Justin Gatlin demonstrated that such a ban is not insurmountable, nor is the damage to one’s reputation irreparable. After four years sponsors, fans, and meet organizers often will forgive the transgression and an athlete can once again obtain fortune and fame.

The incentives to cheat at the elite level also remain extremely high. Given the structure of the sport, the difference in compensation (and fame) between being world-class and a world-beater is enormous. With the amount of money at stake, simply extending the length of punishment is not going to change many athletes’ minds.

Lastly, drug testing is perceived to lag behind doping innovations. In this climate, drug suspensions are a weak deterrent to athletes hell-bent on maximizing their abilities and earning power.

And so, longer bans or not, many track athletes will operate under the famous adage as they always have: ‘It’s only cheating if you’re caught.’