Why Do Athletes Dope When They Are Likely To Get Caught?

If a doping manifesto is ever written, there’s no better way to start it than this seemingly benign statement: If you don’t risk, you can’t win. This is very much the crux of why an elite athlete considers taking performance-enhancing drugs. They know it’s risky, they are putting their entire career on edge by saying yes to drugs, but they also understand the returns are massive, albeit only if they don’t get caught. 

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is a notoriously strict quasi-governmental organisation leading the fight against doping in sports. It’s the worst nightmare for an athlete to fall under the radar of WADA. As weird as it may sound, not everyone who gets caught is a conscious offender, some just happen to take the prohibitive substance unknowingly. But even unintentional action doesn’t absolve you of offence in the eyes of WADA, as Simona Halep realised this week when she was handed a four-year ban after testing positive for blood‑doping agent roxadustat. 

While Halep has received unconditional backing from her former coaches, Patrick Mouratoglou and Darren Cahill, players like Marin Cilic, and Novak Djokovic’s Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA), some in the tennis circuit weren’t amused, throwing shade at her. The loudmouth good-for-nothing Nick Kyrgios made a provocative statement, while Serena Williams posted a cryptic tweet, in reference to the 2019 Wimbledon final which she lost to Halep. 

At 31, this could be the career-ending punishment for Halep. She’ll be fighting for her innocence in the Court of Arbitration For Sports (CAS), but the process is painstakingly slow, and the purgatorial tennis limbo awaits her. But Halep is not the only high-profile athlete who found herself in the middle of a doping controversy. French footballer Paul Pogba too has failed a doping test and has been provisionally suspended. Pogba has been found guilty of taking testosterone. He might face a four-year suspension, like Halep.

But suspension isn’t the only punishment that befalls the dopers. The bigger punishment is the character assassination, the desecration of your entire body of work that follows. While cheating in sports divides opinion, doping is reviled unanimously. Even the most idealist fans who maintain it’s okay to cheat by capitalising on legal loopholes will argue against drug enhancement.

Anything that you’ve ever done in your career is reduced to ashes. Lance Armstrong was stripped of seven Tour de France titles and an Olympic gold. Serena Williams, who herself had to battle baseless doping accusations throughout her career, wanted the same fate for Halep. “8 is a better number,” tweeted Williams. 

She would have eight Wimbledon titles had she not lost to Halep in the 2019 final. While doping surely helps, the question is how much? A player still needs to put in all the hard yards and burn the midnight oil. A below-average player won’t just end up winning a major, no matter how much performance-enhancement drug he takes. Doping, however, does provide the final push, making your body last longer than usual, thus giving you an unfair advantage.

It’s hard to draw a line between what constitutes doping and what doesn’t. While you’re allowed to take creatin in tennis matches – Djokovic was heard asking for “creatin” in a match this year – testosterone is where they draw the line. Of course, there must be valid scientific reason behind putting some substances under the purview of doping and others outside it. 

But mostly it’s arbitrary. The explosive case of Maria Sharapova is a perfect example of how athletes often get the rough end of the stick, sometimes with no fault of their own. The Russian star was handed a two-year ban after she tested positive for meldonium, a substance that she had been taking for over ten years because of magnesium deficiency. Only in 2016, meldonium was included in the prohibitive list, but Sharapova wasn’t alerted by her dietician and tested positive on the eve of the Australian Open.

If doping is to be legalised, the sport will end up becoming a battleground for pharmaceutical companies, where excellence will always be best available to those with immense capital to buy better supplements. But still, a bit of transparency and fairness in how anti-doping law works will not harm the regulatory bodies. 

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