And still the headlines come. On Thursday the Rio Olympic 100m hurdles champion, Brianna McNeal, was provisionally suspended and could face an eight-year doping ban for “tampering”. The week before, the 2017 long jump world champion Luvo Manyonga was suspended and could face a four-year ban for whereabouts violations. Both cases are yet to be prosecuted, and the usual caveats about being innocent until proven guilty apply, but the message is increasingly clear. Track and field is a sport which takes anti-doping seriously.
How seriously? Well, since the Athletics Integrity Unit was set up in April 2017 to oversee drug testing and investigations, 66 Olympic and world medallists have served a doping ban. That is an astonishing statistic. Another 130 athletes, many of them winners on the prestigious Diamond League circuit or major road races, have also been banned. These are big numbers and big stars – and they don’t include prominent cases under appeal to the court of arbitration for sport, either.
There will be some who will shudder at this news. Think of the bad publicity, they will mutter. I disagree. The high numbers should be celebrated, shouted from the rooftops. Because they indicate that track and field doesn’t pay lip service to catching cheats but is actively going after its biggest stars.
How big? Take a roll call of those sanctioned in the past year or two:
• The world 100m champion Christian Coleman, who was banned in October after the AIU showed his claims that he had come back in time from a Christmas shopping trip to be tested was false. Coleman could have been one of the faces of the Tokyo Olympics. Now he will miss the Games.
• The former world marathon record holder Wilson Kipsang, who is serving a four-year ban after the AIU’s investigators uncovered his use of a fake photograph of an overturned lorry to justify one of his missed tests.
• The Rio 2016 steeplechase gold medallist Ruth Jebet, who was banned for four years for testing positive for EPO.
• Jemima Sumgong, the Olympic marathon champion whose ban was doubled to eight years after her claims the she was injected with EPO by an “impostor” at a Kenyan hospital during a doctor’s strike were shown to be fraudulent.
There are plenty more, of course. However there is nothing inherent in track and field that makes athletes more likely to cheat. So the logical conclusion is that other sports have similar problems – but lack the resources and perhaps the resolve to uncover them.
So what could they learn from the AIU? The first is that catching cheats costs serious money. According to its annual report, World Athletics devotes 12% of its budget, around £6m a year, to the AIU. It allows the AIU to have nine staff in intelligence and investigations, eight in testing, five in case management and two each in education and admin. What might football, rugby or the International Olympic Committee achieve if they devoted similar resources to fighting the good fight?
The second key takeaway is that the AIU explicitly acknowledges that testing athletes rarely works in isolation. How can it when banned drugs can be in and out of an athletes’ body in hours? As Victor Conte, the pharmacist who was sent to jail for his role in the Balco scandal in 2003, once told me: “Can athletes microdose with EPO and testosterone and get away with it? Yes, they can … It’s like taking candy from a baby.” However when athletes are relentlessly target-tested, based on tip-offs and intelligence work, the scales can be tipped in the authorities’ favour.
Crucially the AIU makes heavy use of the rule that three missed tests in a 12-month period equates to a positive drugs test – even if someone has never tested positive. It is the doping equivalent of getting Al Capone for tax evasion. But who cares if it works?
Finally, the AIU conducts serious investigations. Look at what happened when the 2017 world indoor high jump champion Danil Lysenko was suspended in 2018 for missing tests. It led to a 15-month investigation, involving 22 witness interviews and an extensive digital forensic analysis of more than six terabytes of electronic data. The result? Not only was Lysenko banned but the board of Russian Athletics stepped down after a wider conspiracy was unearthed, that involved using fake notes from a bogus clinic in Moscow.
The World Athletics president, Sebastian Coe, deserves credit here too. Certainly there were missteps early in his reign, including his reluctance to give up a consultancy role with Nike, but his decision to make the AIU independent and properly funded has been a gamechanger. And it has helped the sport off its knees after senior figures – including Coe’s predecessor as president, Lamine Diack – were revealed to have extorted 22 Russian athletes for bribes in exchange for having their doping bans hushed up.
“Being high profile no longer protects you from the investigative powers of the sport,” Coe said recently. “The AIU has restored some confidence among the athletes that we’ve got an organisation that will fearlessly and ruthlessly weed out the cheats when and where they surface.”
True, there remains some way to go. Many cheats still prosper. But when it comes to anti-doping, at least athletics is out of the starting blocks and into the drive phase. Most sports are not even in the race.