Asafa Powell may be guilty of doping but he’s also a victim

The former 100m world record holder tested positive for a banned stimulant last June. Matt Slocum/AP

As Asafa Powell faces the Jamaica Anti-Doping Disciplinary Panel, we already know his defence – that he was given a supplement called Epiphany D1 by his former physiotherapist, Chris Xuereb, without his knowledge and which contained the banned substance oxilofrine. But, as Powell should have known, athletes compete under strict liability. Their body, their crime.

Powell is a giant of the athletics world. He held the 100m world record between June 2005 and May 2008. His personal best of 9.7 seconds is the fifth fastest time in history. He had held the record for breaking the 10 second barrier more than anyone else – 88 times. But he’s not the first medal-winning, record-breaking athlete to have been busted and he’s unlikely to be the last.

Given that whole careers hang in the balance and millions of dollars in prize money are on offer, doping is inevitable. And despite being told that testing is improving, the odds of being caught are relatively low. In 2012, the US Anti-Doping Agency’s own doping expert Larry Bowers said a negative test cannot be equated with the absence of doping.

In a paper called The Doping Myth, researchers Hermann and Henneberg wrote:

Using typical values of detectability … the probability of detecting a cheater who uses doping methods every week is only 2.9% per test.

Doping is not just an issue for athletics but for all sports which require speed, power and endurance. There is already evidence that doping has been rife in German football and, I believe, that it is present systematically and endemically in professional football.

FIFA has been resistant to attempts by the World Anti-Doping Agency to increase testing, and have applied a modified version of the whereabouts rule to football which means doping officials only have to know where the team is training, and if any players will be absent. The ship sails on, for the moment. But time will tell.

Skewed ethics

Nearly everyone thinks that not only is doping wrong, it is deeply wrong. But it is worth scrutinising what determines whether or not a substance is categorised as banned or not.

In the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Australian fencer Alex Watson tested positive for a performance enhancing substance, 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine. He was banned from the sport for two years, his career in tatters and he was left footing a six-figure legal bill. Others have been stripped of medals for using the same substance.

In the London 2012 Olympics, British track cyclist Sir Chris Hoy attributed his success in part to the same substance, even saying he would bring his own “supply” as he did not trust local sources. Mark Cavendish, an outspoken anti-doping cyclist, attributed leaving his lucrative contract at Team Sky partly to their lack of respect towards preparing the same substance properly.

1,3,7-trimethylxanthine is, of course, caffeine. It increases time to exhaustion by about 10%. Banned before 2004, it has since been made legal.

There is no deep ethical issue in doping. It is wrong because it is cheating. But if the rules were changed, there would be nothing intrinsically wrong with it. Wearing spiked performance-enhancing running shoes would be wrong if there were a rule that banned them. But there isn’t, so there is nothing unethical about shoes that give the runner greater leverage and speed. There is nothing wrong with Lasik eye surgery to give golfers like Tiger Woods better than natural 20/20 vision, provided there is no rule against it.

So we should drop the flawed principle that if something enhances performance then we should ban it. Instead we should consider four points when determining which substances should be banned or why.

Safety

What athletes take should be safe, or safe enough compared to the risks of the sport. Contrary to popular belief, modern doping practices are safe. In fact, a recent study showed French Tour de France competitors had a 41% lower mortality than the French male population as a whole, despite what we now know about the prevalence and extent of doping in elite cycling.

Performance-enhancing substances such as steroids, growth hormones and blood are all natural and vary from individual to individual. We now also know a huge amount about safe and unsafe levels. These limits could be set and easily measured.

Of course, there can be some performance-enhancing substances that are unsafe at any dose, or taken in such large doses that they become unsafe. It is these substances or doses that we should focus on, not on the safe practices which are occurring today.

Testing human skill or talent

People want sport to be a test of human skill, not purely of pharmaceutical or technological sophistication. But modern pharmacologically enhanced athletics remains a competition of human skill and endeavour. Steroids only shave a couple of tenths of a second off of sprint times. They allow athletes longer careers and harder training regimes. But they don’t have the transformational power of, say, Popeye’s spinach.

Steroids aren’t quite as effective as Popeye’s spinach.

Spectacle

Professional sport is partly entertainment for those paying to watch it. Fans have a stake in sport being interesting and watchable. The current ban fails this test as we now no longer know who is taking a performance enhancing substance, and who isn’t.

Enforcing the rules

Rules should be enforceable in practice. The current ban is almost impossible to enforce because steroids, growth hormones, blood and other substances are all natural. For this reason, biological passports have been introduced to monitor various “biomarkers” of doping over time. But if you start early enough and are smart enough an athlete can use this passport to their advantage. Because people vary so much in these natural “biomarkers” you are never certain whether it is the result of natural variation or doping.

Testing simple physiological endpoints, like level of hormones and blood, is simpler, cheaper and more enforceable. The biological passport applied to these rules would become an effective tool. It would tell you across time if the athlete had crossed any unsafe physiological limit. What you measure in this case is just what you want to know – is the athlete fit to compete?

Contrary to the anti-doping hysteria, sport is about performance enhancement. If we recognise this and adopt the four principles into our thinking, maybe then there will be fewer doping trials and we can get on with playing and enjoying watching sport again.

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