The "Drug Cheat" Dilemma

Justin Gatlin. LaShawn Merritt. Dwain Chambers.

Tyson Gay will soon join this list of track and field athletes once suspended for drug use who have since returned to competition at the conclusion of their mandatory time away from the sport.

Despite the fact they have “served their time,” many of these individuals rejoin the professional circuit under a cloud of suspicion due to their transgressions.

In many ways, it’s deserved. They betrayed the trust of their fellow competitors, their support circles, and the sport as a whole. Competition cannot exist when some don’t comply with the established ground rules.

However, former drug users who serve out their suspensions are often labeled as “drug cheats,” vilified, and targeted for criticism for life.

Something about that doesn’t seem quite right.

These athletes have served their punishments under the framework laid out by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Once their suspensions have timed out, they are legally allowed to return to competition.

Many in the sport are calling for tougher punishments for convicted drug users, perhaps even a lifetime ban for the first positive test.

That’s a valid argument, but it belongs in a separate discussion. The collective dissatisfaction with current doping regulations should be targeted at WADA, not on those who return at the time current rules allow them to.

I always like to tie debates in track and field to those in politics, another field that I’m familiar with, where anger is similarly misguided in the discussion about campaign finance reform.

Many activists, particularly from the left-leaning side of the political spectrum, are appalled at the levels of spending in campaigns for political office caused by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United. In a nutshell, the ruling equated campaign contributions to free speech, allowing corporations, associations, and labor unions to donate unlimited amounts of money to independent expenditure campaigns.

These folks wage what I consider to be a noble effort to reform how campaigns are funded. But they cross the line, in my mind, when they begin vilifying candidates who are prolific fundraisers and do so under the legal framework currently in place. These individuals become labeled as “big money” candidates who work for the interests of their wealthy donors rather than their constituents.

The reality is that any candidate serious about winning political office must raise money (and a lot of it) to wage a winning campaign, much like professional track athletes (including those returning from drug suspensions) must compete for prize money in order to make a living.

Blaming those complying with the rules set forward for them instead of discussing the larger issue at hand is simply misguided anger being pointed in the wrong direction.

In other words, as the great American poet laureate Ice-T said, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”

Tags: Citizens United Dwain Chambers Justin Gatlin Lawshawn Merritt Tyson Gay Wada

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