Test case: LaShawn Merritt's win could open the floodgates to drug cheats Photo: REUTERS
London 2012 Olympics: LaShawn Merritt's victory leaves the Olympic movement at a loss
In an unfortunate example of butterfly-wing theory, LaShawn Merritt and his bedroom insecurities have just inflicted a nasty blow on the credibility of the London Olympics.
By Simon Briggs
07 Oct 2011
You can argue that the Court of Arbitration for Sport was right to rule in Merritt’s favour, on the grounds that he should not be punished twice for taking a banned “male enhancement” product.
But it will be harder to swallow the dozens of convicted drug offenders who are expected to gatecrash next summer’s Olympics on the back of this case. If we believe Merritt’s story, he was primarily concerned about how he measured up in the showers, but others took steroids to improve their athletic performance. They were not naive victims but deliberate cheats.
The complexities of this issue stem from the changing nature of the Olympics. Were the Games still an amateur festival, as they were 50 years ago, the International Olympic Committee could set its own rules. It could suit itself, like some multinational private members’ club. It could ban athletes with a history of Morris dancing, if it felt like it, or a fondness for sushi.
But now that the Games are just another part of a professionalised sporting circuit, the athletes have become — in effect — a workforce. The rights of the individual trump the ethos of the event. And the romantic ideal of the Olympics as the ultimate celebration of human potential can only suffer as a result.
It is hard to argue with the CAS judgment on legal grounds. The Osaka Rule — which prevented athletes banned for more than six months from competing in the next Olympic Games — was vulnerable because of the legal principle known as ne bis in idem, which means you should not suffer twice for the same offence.
But however logical the argument might be, it doesn’t make the decision any easier to stomach. To live up to our hopes and aspirations, the Games have to feel right. And while the Osaka Rule might not satisfy a lawyer, it does feel right that, if you commit a doping offence of a certain seriousness, part of your punishment should be to miss the next Olympics.
In a perfect world, the athletics events at the Olympics would be unimpeachable. These runners, jumpers and throwers should not only be the best of the best, but the purest of the purest, stretching the envelope for mankind without using the magic bullet that comes packed into a syringe.
Athletics — which remains at the heart of the modern Olympics — is particularly vulnerable to doping issues because physical conditioning is everything. And you only have to cross the line once for your body to be compromised. Even if you stay clean thereafter, no one will ever know how much you owe to that desperate shot in the arm, or leg, or buttock.
That is the principle that underlies the British Olympic Association’s version of the Osaka Rule — a bylaw that makes any convicted drug offender ineligible for the national team for life. Yet the BOA’s stance is now the lamest of ducks, a paper-thin sanction that surely cannot withstand a challenge. It may be the will of the vast majority of athletes, as well as the British public, that Dwain Chambers should not run for Britain at the Olympics. But that, now, appears to be a decision that only Chambers himself can take.
By comparison with the match-fixing scandals rumbling on in football and cricket, the Merritt case might seem a minor issue. But the presence of up to 150 doping offenders in London next year could become a depressing sideshow, especially if many of them win medals.
The hardliners, such as Lord Coe and Lord Moynihan, will do their best to fight the incoming tide. But tradition alone will not be enough to preserve the Games from business logic and the tyranny of equal opportunities, even for those who have committed the ultimate sporting sins.
Most sports fans will tell you that the Olympics should be more than just another stop on the athletic calendar. They should operate at a higher level than anything else.
Perhaps they still do, but for how much longer? Whether through grandiosity, rampant commercialism or the inclusion of daft sports (football? golf?) the Games’ cachet is gradually being eroded, chip by chip.
It is a shame, from the IOC’s perspective, that Merritt chose to visit a pharmacy rather than a shrink. As a result of his self-esteem issues, another crack has just appeared in the five rings.