PICTURE the scene. The Mall, Saturday, 28 July. At the finish of the men’s Olympic road race Spain’s Alejandro Valverde outsprints Holland’s Thomas Dekker for the gold medal, with Kazakhstan’s Alexandre Vinokourov claiming bronze.
Behind them, Mark Cavendish thumps his handlebars in frustration and lets out an unprintable expletive as he rolls past Buckingham Palace, just as Her Majesty peers over the balcony to see what all the fuss is about. Cavendish is thinking about what might have been, if his British team had been at full strength, if, in the final hour of the race, when he needed strong riders to reel in the break of Valverde, Dekker and Vinokourov, one of his allies had been David Millar.
But Millar has not been allowed to represent Great Britain in the Olympics because he has served a doping ban. Just like Valverde, Dekker and Vinokourov…
It is a scenario that highlights one of the flaws in the lifetime ban the British Olympic Association (BOA) currently imposes on past drugs offenders, although most expect the bylaw to be overturned tomorrow, when the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) delivers its verdict on what has appeared to be the very strange case of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) versus the BOA over the latter’s insistence on a stiffer penalty for dopers. The confusion is understandable. Isn’t WADA all about fighting doping, rather than demanding fairer treatment for convicted cheats? Why the opposition to the BOA enforcing an extra punishment, which may act as a deterrent?
Here’s why. WADA’s job is to draw up and enforce a World Anti-Doping Code. The clue is in the word “world”. Unprecedented international co-operation and financial support underpinned WADA, set up in the aftermath of the doping scandals at the 1998 Tour de France, and the agency’s first priority was the “drafting, acceptance and implementation of a harmonised set of anti-doping rules”.
The Code came into existence in 2004. Sports federations, governments and national Olympic associations, including the BOA, all signed up to it. It was a huge leap forward. But the key word was “harmonised”. If everybody didn’t agree to it, nobody might as well have agreed to it.
The Code is not set in stone. It is continuously tweaked and modified and it is currently undergoing a review, which many hope will result in the introduction of automatic four-year, rather than two-year, bans.
In 2007, when it was last revised, it was endorsed by the 1,500 delegates present at the Third World Conference on Doping in Sport in Madrid.
Again, the BOA signed up, though it did not include a lifetime Olympic ban for doping offenders.
All of which makes the recent BOA defence of the bylaw not only costly and divisive, but also, and most damning of all, potentially counterproductive to the number one priority, which should be the global fight against doping (unless we would be happy for the Brits to be clean, even if everyone else is dirty).
Colin Moynihan, the BOA chairman, has said that, in defending the bylaw, he has the backing of the majority of British athletes, which appears to be true. But he must also realise that a World Anti-Doping Code will only work if all parties adhere to it. And that, if exceptions are made, it sets a precedent that could be exploited by those with less admirable aims.
Say, for example, that Jamaica decide to stop testing, or FIFA and UEFA seek an exemption for footballers from the “whereabouts” programme – an essential tool in anti-doping. In fact, the latter is not a hypothetical scenario: an exemption is exactly what the football bodies, and the international cricket body, the ICC, lobbied WADA for, on the grounds that the players’ privacy needed to be protected. WADA stood firm. Acknowledging past problems with “disjointed and uncoordinated anti-doping efforts,” they stressed the importance of everybody conforming to the Code. No exceptions. When the rules are breached, it is their job to uphold them– as it was with FIFA and the ICC, as it was with the Spanish Cycling Federation, whose lenient treatment of Alberto Contador was appealed by WADA, with CAS eventually handing him a two-year suspension and stripping him of his 2010 Tour de France title. As it has been with the BOA.
The message is clear: if you are out of step with the Code, WADA will bring you back in line. At stake is their – and the Code’s – credibility. If that crumbles, WADA’s authority goes, the Code becomes unenforceable, and the fight against doping is set back years, to the disjointed, dark and lawless days of the 1980s and 90s.
The irony is that David Millar really doesn’t care whether he competes at the Olympics. If the ban is overturned and he rides it won’t be for himself, it will principally be for Mark Cavendish. He could be the difference between Cavendish winning and losing. He could – irony of ironies – be the difference between a gold medal for a rider with an impeccable reputation (Cavendish) or a convicted doper (Valverde, Dekker, et al).
Her Majesty might be among those who would not be amused.