2016 has not been a good year for Performance Enhancing Drugs in sport. Maria Sharapova was suspended for two years for a failed drug test at the Australian Open, the entire Russian team has been banned from the Olympics (contingent on the 67 athletes who appealed earlier this week) and the discussion worked its way into football through the Mamadou Sakho case.
One thing that separates PED or steroid cases from other suspensions is the moralizing that comes into play. People who are found guilty of using PEDs in sport are not just athletes who cheated, they are "cheaters". There are very few other infringements I can think of across any sport that brands athletes cheaters for life (corked bats in baseball?).
So what is it about steroids? Well firstly there is a complicated history behind the PED-taboo. I can't claim to be an expert in this area but a lot of the current atmosphere surrounding PEDs stems from East German cases during the 1970s at the height of the Cold War. In an era where everything was a race between the Eastern and Western blocs any excuse to say the what the others were doing was cheating made for easy propaganda. Since then we've had hundreds of high profile cases from Ben Johnson at the 1988 Olympics to baseball in the 1990s-2000s and of course Lance Armstrong.
Whether rightly or wrongly Ben Johnson was completely disgraced and spent the rest of his career doing dumb commercials for Cheetah energy drinks which made use of the oh so clever cheater-cheetah pun, Barry Bonds one of the most prolific baseball players of all time looks like he will never get near the hall of fame and Lance Armstrong is most remembered today for an Oprah interview. The discovery of PED use ends careers and at this point it would be surprising if Maria Sharapova ever sheds the title of cheater.
The problem is that none of these infractions are nearly as clear cut as they may initially sound.
Firstly the definition of a PED is problematic. The name Performance Enhancing Drug as a synonym for something illegal is incredibly misleading, since every professional athlete on the planet takes performance enhancing drugs of some sort or another. Whether those are pain-killers, anti-depressants, or anabolic steroids. They all improve performance and some I think all sport fans would be okay with. Anti-depressants for example are an essential part of many people's day-to-day lives and they surely enhance performance for athletes who suffer from depression, yet no one would ever suggest to ban athletes for taking these type of drugs. So what is an illegal PED? Well something that the competition rules say is illegal.
These banned substance lists are fluid, constantly changing and always up for debate. What is a banned substance today might not be tomorrow and vice-versa. So here the moralizing starts to get a little hazy. If an athlete takes a drug that was legal and then stops taking it when it becomes banned was that athlete cheating before hand? Should we look back on their results differently? Sure they were following the rules, but if we truly believe that taking PEDs is a moral infringement then it shouldn't matter what the "rules" were at the time. Unless of course it is the simple act of breaking these rules that is so egregious.
However, this brings up another problem. If it is only the breaking of the rule that is the problem not the taking of the drug itself why is it such a bigger deal to break PED rules than say the Laws of the Game. Players are often commended for pushing boundaries during games if they don't get caught. For example in football we often talk about the "dark arts of defending" where players attempt to put each other off in the box by pulling shirts or holding onto arms and we never brand players cheaters for doing this. Obviously there are differences with PEDs but supposedly the main issue with both is that they are breaking a rule set out by the competition.
The main response to this line of thinking is often the health effects, that PEDs negatively affect an athlete's health. I'm not a doctor and I'm not well read enough on the subject to address the validity of these claims, but I'm sure some banned substances have negative effects on an athlete's health (on the flip side I'm sure many have negligible negative health effects as well but that's beside the point). This is obviously a reasonable concern, however the problem is that being a professional athlete is almost certainly bad for your health regardless of what drugs you take.
How many athletes do we hear about across all sports who struggle with chronic pain, depression, and a variety of mental and physical health problems after retirement? There is a difference between consistently exercising and the incredible physical and emotional stress that professional athletes are subjected to. So sure many banned substances may be bad for your health but so is being a professional athlete and we don't hear calls to mandate training hour limits or intensity limits (and if there were these regulations athletes would find ways around them just like they find ways around PED regulations).
Now all of this is not to say PED use is something that should be ignored. I think it's important to make it clear that especially in the cases of minors, young athletes should not be forced into making decisions between their health and their athletic futures. If kids feel the need to resort to PEDs to make it to the next level then we clearly have a problem. However, it's not clear the current PED approach is the best to make sure that doesn't happen.
In order to make progress on this front one thing that needs to happen around PED use in sport is an understanding that the line is not as clear as many make it out to be. Athletes caught using banned substances are not "cheaters" in a way that is substantially different to athletes who consistently infringe upon the laws of their sport. Moralizing about it doesn't help, whereas being understanding about it does.
Undoubtedly countless athletes who have used PEDs their whole careers will never be caught, so right now all that is happening with these severe punishments is that the few who are caught are taking the brunt of the discipline for not having as good masking agents or whatever else as their competitors. I don't think these cases should be ignored, but banning Sharapova for two years and essentially ending her career is not going to end doping in tennis. She made a mistake, she did something wrong, but to ban her for two years suggests she did something far more egregious than what she really did. She tried to gain an edge and didn't get away with it.
The Sakho case earlier this year is inevitably just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to PED use in football, and FIFA need a plan. The haphazard approach of arbitrary suspension lengths, which often serve to end or at least poison careers just doesn't match up with the reality of what PED use is and isn't. It has hurt baseball, it has hurt cycling and if it continues in tennis it will inevitably hurt that sport as well.
So what's the right approach? I'm not sure, but PED use in sport is messy and complicated whereas the approach to dealing with it so rarely reflects this reality. There is no clear line of what is right and what is wrong yet so often we talk in terms of this imaginary line. Hopefully sport can learn from it's mistakes of the past and come up with a strategy that better reflects the reality of the modern day professional athlete.