Are the drug-testers catching up? In the last two weeks French tennis player Richard Gasquet has tested positive for cocaine, LA Dodgers baseball player Manny Ramirez has tested positive for a women’s fertility drug, and the test of a frozen sample from Olympic 1500m champion Rashid Ramzi proved positive for blood-boosting drug CERA.
All are facing significant penalties. Both Gasquet and Ramzi could receive a two year ban and Ramzi is likely to lose his gold medal. Ramirez has been given a 50 game suspension which sounds a lot but amounts to only two months.
The stories have attracted considerable media interest and a certain degree of resignation: Athletics Weekly points out that Ramzi’s behaviour was regarded as suspicious because he raced only infrequently; comment in the New York Times concludes that Ramirez’s record will forever be tarnished; and, for Le Figaro, Gasquet had recently been failing to meet the high expectations raised by his early success.
Of the three, the positive test probably matters least to Ramirez who is 36 and has already made a large amount of money. Nevertheless, there will be an asterisk beside his name in the record books. Ramzi’s name will be removed from the 2008 Olympic results and it is perhaps unlikely that he will return to top-level competition. In contrast, the 23 year-old Gasquet should be able to make a comeback but he could face a long battle to climb back up the rankings.
For the last 20 years or more it has often been assumed that most of the athletes taking drugs were one step ahead of the testers. Quite simply, out of competition testing was sufficiently rare that those inclined to cheat could restrict their drug regime to the off-season and gaps between events. But gradually the net has been closing. The much-maligned “whereabouts” rule, which requires athletes to provide their location for one hour every day of the year, makes it much harder to evade tests.
Ramzi’s positive test is particularly significant because it was one of a batch of tests carried out on frozen samples produced during the Beijing Olympic Games. Samples can now be kept for a number of years and further analysis carried out when a new test for a banned substance becomes available.
The motivations for taking recreational drugs, as Gasquet seems to have done, are obviously different from those who seek to boost their performance unfairly but the punishment is the same. Ultimately, all elite athletes have to agree to abide by the rules of competition when they participate, which include avoiding substances on the World Anti-Doping Agency Probibited List.
Positive drugs tests are damaging because fans become disaffected, sponsors get scared off, and parents worry about the risks of pushing their children into sport. However, when there are a handful of positive tests it serves as warning for those athletes who may be considering cheating and it may reassure those who are clean that the guilty will be caught.
Cynical, world-weary sports fans will take some persuading but the drug-testers may just be catching up.