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Has the media frenzy around Bolt vs Gatlin helped or hindered a sport attempting to deal with widespread doping?

Whether its Michael Johnson’s blisteringly quick 400m of 16years ago, or Mike Powell bettering Bob Beaman’s long jump record or Usain Bolt’s scarcely comprehendible 9.58 for the 100 meters, the World Athletics Championships have set the scene for some of the greatest moments in track and field.

Unfortunately in 2015 the event steeped in some of man’s greatest sporting achievements has been completely overshadowed before, during and invariably after these championships. The cloud that has been looming overhead has been gathering for some time. How does a sport deal with the significant number of athletes prepared to cheat in spite of the consequences? Furthermore, if the IAAF feels athletes deserve second and even third chances how will they are to be portrayed and treated once they re-enter the sport?

With understandable reason, these championships were dubbed by some sections of the media as the battle of good versus evil. The clean athletes against the dopers or to paraphrase, Bolt versus Gatlin. What may have started off as investigative journalism attempting to uncover the extent of cheating within athletics, at times has taken on a darker, more sinister turn.

Vilifying one athlete, in the form of Justin Gatlin, has begun to overshadow the real issue of doping and how the sport manages athletes returning from bans. Half the men’s 100 metre finalists have been guilty of some form of doping, this is a widespread problem it is not just one or two individuals.

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The sprinters are not the only group of track and field stars who have been caught out, 66 athletes across the championships have served some sort of ban at one time or another and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Is this an epidemic of colossal proportions or a sport finally getting to grips with the sort of testing procedures required?

The IAAF needs to take the UCI’s lead. The world governing body of cycling has spent four times as much money on testing as has been set aside in athletics. Ten to fifteen years ago doping in cycling was commonplace and its only years later that the procedures put in place are making a difference. However, public perception is now that every slightly out of the ordinary performance in road cycling is greeted with pessimism. The IAAF will have to expect the same reaction given its lacklustre approach to screening and deterring athletes for which they have received widespread criticism.

The general consensus is that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. There needs to be life bans enforced for serious offenses without the opportunity of second chances. Only with adequate deterrents will athletes not take the risks they are. Education at a grass roots level is also crucial, alert coaches and competitors to the pitfalls that others have encountered, each individual must take responsibility for what they put in their body.

The media and former athletes also have a responsibility to the sport. By creating such a sideshow of Gatlin, pundits are missing the opportunity to tackle the real issue. Gatlin is certainly a comfortable scapegoat for most. It is not his fault the IAAF felt it okay to let him re-join the sport and in doing so he deserves the same protection as any other banned athlete.  What he and so many athletes like him must understand is that the general public find it difficult to reconcile someone who was caught once and didn’t learn their lesson.

Only through naming and shaming all failed athletes and treating them equally, as the leaked database released by the Sunday Times London attempted to do, will the governing body slowly start to deter the persistent offenders. Revealing the extent of cheating at recent world championships and Olympic Games is only the first step.

The IAAF needs to re-examine samples and be prepared to apply historic bans and strip medals if necessary. The worry is that the governing body have only started to act as a result of recent negative press. Incoming president Seb Coe has an important role to encourage a more proactive attitude.

The next job for the IAAF is to get on top of some of the worst offending nations or “rogue states”. Russia is regarded by some as returning to the days of state sponsored doping whilst Jamaican & Kenyan athletes are producing an alarming number of failed tests. The USA are also one of the worst offenders with the country threatened with expulsion from the Olympic movement in 2000 such was the scale of doping within their track and field team at the time.

The governing body needs to demonstrate more humility and apologize for some of its failings. Only working together with experts from WADA and other national doping agencies can the IAAF really crack down on the cheats. Some nations are being proactive and not waiting for the IAAF to take the lead. Germany are making blood doping in sport a crime punishable with a 3 year jail term and hopefully other countries will follow suit.

With so many damaging allegations regarding past performances in both sprint and endurance races coming to light the powers at be must act fast to preserve public perception of the sport.  Whilst the sports fans may not perceive cycling as a sport where doping is commonplace, what has been left behind is a hardened scepticism of any performance deemed even slightly out of the norm. Chris Froome knows all too well how his Tour De France victory could not be celebrated it had to be constantly defended and justified even months later.

Maybe athletics should be just as suspicious towards top performances like Dafne Schipper’s win at the women’s 200 metres.   Are we to become weary of almost every exceptional run or throw? Have the cheats damaged the sports image irreparably? Only time will tell, or is this a necessary consequence, a wakeup call for a sport in desperate need of cleaning up its act. Things were always going to get worse before they got better.

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