For fans of fair sport, can an athlete ever truly step out of the shadow of a doping conviction – and should we let them, asks Steve Trew

Doping in Sport

So Nike is going to sponsor USA super sprinter Justin Gatlin. And why shouldn’t it? Well, Gatlin has been banned for the use of illegal substances not once but twice. He tested positive for amphetamine use in 2001. In 2004 he won the Olympic 100 metres. In 2006 he tested positive for excessive testosterone. This brought a ban of eight years (later halved to four years) on appeal. Gatlin was previously sponsored by Nike who let him go after his drugs ban.

Now, no-one sponsors unless they believe that they will receive a good return on their investment in the athlete. Otherwise, why do it? Is it their belief that those of us who watch and love sport just don’t care about the rights and wrongs of athletes who have served doping bans, even if those bans are served and there’s no reason to believe the athlete is anything but clean now? Even Nike athlete Paula Radcliffe disagreed with the Gatlin deal. “I am disappointed to hear this,” she tweeted, “I don’t believe it reflects the core values of the Nike I am proud to represent nor the integrity and the ideals of the people there that I work with on a daily basis.”

One of the big issues around welcoming previously convicted athletes back to sport is the scientific question of whether they might still benefit, years later, from past use of banned substances. Well, it has been suspected for some time that there may well be a knock-on effect of taking illegal substances. Some scientists believe that it can be compared to the long term muscle memory; you learn to ride a bike, you never forget. Kristian Gundersen, Professor of Physiology at the University of Oslo in Norway told the BBC last year, “I think it is likely that effects could be lifelong or at least lasting decades in humans, if you exercise, or take anabolic steroids, you get more nuclei and you get bigger muscles. If you take away the steroids, you lose the muscle mass, but the nuclei remain inside the muscle fibres ready to start producing protein again when you start exercising again.” It must be stated that this study was carried out on mice, but Gundersen believes it has implications in humans.

So again, the big question is; if you have taken illegal performance enhancing substances previously, and have now returned to competition clean, are you still getting those performance enhancing advantages?

I have to admit that I still hold very much the Corinthian attitude to sport; fair competition in fair circumstances. When Lance Armstrong finally fell foul of his long term substance abuse, his sponsors Nike left him with great speed. And there had been rumours for many, many years of Lance’s doping. Would we – the cycling and triathlon community – welcome back Armstrong after everything that’s passed?

It is no secret that track and field athletics is once again at the centre of drug controversy. Today’s villain is Russia with a huge number of positive doping scandals. However, we would be foolish to believe that athletics is the only dirty sport. There have been issues with cycling for a long time, and only recently a 2012 Olympic swimming gold medallist has tested positive and received a ban. Thankfully, triathlon has so far been relatively unscathed by doping scandals, with just a few high-profile incidences; long may it stay that way.

POSTSCRIPT

I coach an extraordinary young lady who has put more back into sport and charity work than most. She was asked to ride the ‘day before’ Tour de France. It is an amazing affair organised and coordinated by former England footballer Geoff Thomas to raise money for his charity, Cure Leukaemia, where Geoff and co-riders ride the entire Tour de France route just one day before the race itself. This athlete would have been the first female ever to have ridden this. And then Lance Armstrong was asked to ride a couple of stages to raise the profile even more. After a moral struggle with herself, my athlete has declined the invitation.

Steve Trew: Coach & Commentator

Steve Trew

No funnies this month. I just hate, hate, hate drugs in sport. Steve is an advisory coach for Speedo, he can be reached for all things triathlon on trew@personalbest.demon.co.uk

Image: Shutterstock

For more from Steve and other professionals in triathlon, head to our Pro Triathlon section