Man at His Best

Opinion: In Doping, Where Does The Preparation End And The Cheating Begin?

A sham win with banned substances.

BY Nicholas Fang | May 16, 2017 | Fitness & Health


I got into a heated debate with a champion marathoner... well, as heated as it gets on WhatsApp anyway. I had just read about the latest developments pertaining to doping in athletics. 

Cuban-born Alberto Salazar represented the USA at the 1984 Olympics and was a legendary marathoner. He moved on to coaching where he achieved significant success guiding track-and-field luminaries such as Galen Rupp and Matthew Centrowitz. His most prodigious charge, though, is Mo Farah, who won the 5,000m and 10,000m races at the 2012 London Olympics, and then repeated the feat in Rio four years later. 

They are part of the Nike Oregon Project that Salazar heads, and which promoted American long-distance running since 2001, and the use of revolutionary training and sports science. 

But Salazar and his charges have come under scrutiny since 2015, when media investigations threw up suspicious doping tests and allegations of risky practices that skim the boundary between doping and “progressive sporting preparations”. 

To be clear, none of these athletes were decisively found guilty of the alleged charges but my friend remained livid. His point was that the intent to cheat was as bad as the act itself. 

While I did not disagree with the principle, I took a more realistic view, which was that it really comes down to what can be proven in court. 

Throughout the war on doping, anti-doping authorities are caught in an “arms race” of sorts with dopers. There’s been no shortage of dubious medical practitioners who aid cheats by finding the latest undetectable substance, for the right price, of course. 

If we can’t prove that someone has taken a banned substance, how can we demonstrate the “intention” to cheat, albeit through non-banned means? 

But there may be some hope yet. To make it to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of prohibited substances, two of the following three criteria must be met: 1) the substance has the potential to enhance performance; 2) it poses a health risk to athletes; and/or 3) it violates “the spirit of sport”. 

While ethereal-sounding, the “spirit of sport” could be used to tackle accusations of suspect medical conditions, which entail the taking of substances that may enhance athletic performance. If nothing else, this sounds like it runs contrary to the “spirit” of good, clean sportsmanship. Proving this is might be complicated though, and the lawyers hired by those involved are probably the happiest about this. 

However, given the bane of doping sweeping global sports, this is a fight that we can’t afford to let up on.

This article was first published in the print edition of Esquire Singapore, May 2017.