Should athletes facing doping violations be eligible for the delayed 2020 Olympic Games?
While the world is trying to navigate through this time of uncertainty, there are many things that are unknown. When will we get a vaccine, and what are the long term effects on economies, tend to be at the top of people’s lists. However, for a few select athletes, the biggest unknown is eligibility.
With the world on pause, it is not surprise that many sporting events were cancelled or postponed. While sports are an important stream of income and offer enjoyment to billions, they are not essential during a pandemic. So when the Tokyo 2020 organizers announced that the Summer Games would be delayed, it was no surprise.
Since this will be the first time that the Olympic and Paralympic games will be delayed, rather than cancelled outright, there are many unprecedented scenarios the various organisers have to consider. One of the governing bodies that doesn’t often catch the eye of fans is the World Anti-Doping Agency. Known as simply WADA, it is either a blessing or a curse for athletes.
What is WADA?
The World Anti-Doping Agency has bee around for just over two decades. Formed in November of 1999, it has served as really an extension of the International Olympic Committee. Based in Montreal, Canada, WADA helps to regulate the ongoing problem of doping in sports, specifically international solo events. They are the judge, jury and executioner for many who are suspected or caught taking performance enhancing substances. WADA tested nearly 350,000 athletes in 2018, according to their website.
WADA, while heavily criticised in some regards, is trying to make the sporting world an even playing field. They hand down strategic bans to those that have violated the guidelines set out. The bans are placed at the end of major sporting events, to bar the athlete from competing in the highest of levels. This often comes in the form of a “ four year ban”. While this doesn’t seem all that bad, this four year ban is often in reality an eight year ban for many who have Olympic aspirations. Bans tend to start at the beginning of one game and the end of another.
While a vast majority of these athletes currently facing penalties will have very little to gain in terms of Tokyo 2020's delay, for a small select group it could mean everything. It is estimated that roughly 40 athletes will be able to benefit from this schedule change. And while that may seem like such a miniscule number when there are over 11,000 athletes competing in the Summer Games, some of these athletes are legitimate top tier talent.
The Poster Child
As of right now there is one athlete that has become the face of this issue. That is the 2012 Olympic runner up in women’s 1500-meter Gamze Bulut from Turkey. She last competed at the 2012 London Summer games, and had a seemingly remarkable run, no pun intended, to the podium. However, the once image of inspiration for Turkish runners, became an image of scandal, when she tested positive for using performing enhancing methods.
I’m not one to judge her decisions. She made her choice for whatever reasons, and at 22 years of age, was probably under tremendous pressure to perform. Winning a medal could mean a whole new way of life for her. That’s not to diminish her actions, and because of her misguided decisions, WADA smacked her with a four year ban in May of 2016. This was just months before the Rio Olympics, and is set to expire May 29th, which would have made her miss the qualifying event for Tokyo 2020.
As we know everything has had to been rescheduled, and if you don’t follow the lead up to the games, you may not realize how close most of the qualifiers are to the actual games. As of right now, the Tokyo organizers have announced that still 43% of the field need to qualify for the Olympics. With the scheduled delayed a year, as of right now, Gamze will be able to at least attempt to qualify.
Is it fair? What about doping for next year?
What it really comes down to is the question of if it’s fair. This is not an objective debate, and is strictly opinion based. On one hand, you can say that these athletes have served out the punishments they were handed, and through no doing of their own are set to possibly benefit. The athletes would still have to compete to secure their spot like everyone else, and could very well be at a disadvantage, if they didn’t keep in shape. Finally, after all, WADA doesn’t often issue lifetime bans to allow athletes to get at least a theoretical chance at redemption.
On the flip side, it can be argued that, although the time of the suspension was served, the intention of the ban was never fulfilled. It was meant to be a strict punishment, that would frankly cost most athletes their prime years of competition. However, using the example of Bulut, she would only be 28, far from an older over the hill athlete.
The concern from athletes is not just that these former violators are now able to compete. Frankly, due to Covid-19, drug testing has become extremely difficult, with even WADA admitting that it is. The organisation made a press release on March 23rd addressing the concerns athletes had.
WADA responds to athlete queries concerning anti-doping in light of COVID-19 (23 March 2020)
Today, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) responded to athlete queries concerning anti-doping in light of the ongoing…
Another problem is that a lot of the time, catching athletes isn’t simply due to a urine test. Many times athletes are caught due to word of mouth and investigative work. Social distancing rules and quarantine of course make this next to impossible.
So what can they really do, to preserve the integrity of the game? Well of course if there is a vaccine in the near future, they could return to normal. But, of course no one knows if or when that will happen. So plans are already being put into place to make it safer for drug testing. However, the reality remains that some athletes are going to be able to get away with doping, even more so than normally.
As you can see, this may be the most complex situation regarding doping in an Olympic Games. The obvious troubles of testing moving forward, and the punishment for those who are already serving suspensions will be hot topics moving forward. All in all, is it fair? Probably not, but a lot of the integrity of the games will rely on athletes more so than ever.
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