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 Featured Justin Gatlin Lawshawn Merritt Popular Tyson Gay Wada

  • Sieg Lindstrom

    Where the political analogy falls apart is that two-thirds of the US House and Senate could vote tomorrow for a Constitutional amendment imposing campaign finance limits. That’s not going to happen in a Congressional environment where Senate rules have made it possible for politicians who don’t want rigorous regulation of campaign finance to render even the Federal Election Commission toothless by blocking the replacement of members whose terms have expired. It is possible to deduce which politicians don’t hate but love the unlimited money “game.” Athletes, cheaters and honorable competitors alike, have no such power to shape the rules concerning doping enforcement.

    • Kevin Liao

      Even more of a case for a more powerful athlete voice in the system. Dare I call it a “union.”

  • Thomas Freedom

    The steroid type drug benefits typically last three years….. one year longer than the suspensions.

    • Jordan Yamat

      Wow, where are you getting the statistics? 3 years?!?! that’s a crazy amount of time. Look at Victor Martinez in 2011 when he took 4th at the Mr. Olympia. Then look at his pictures of him getting out of jail in April, 2012 (he was in jail for 6 months). He looks like a regular guy. Please this is nonsense.