Editorial: Drug cheats should be banned for life

Last updated 05:00 11/02/2013
Nadzeya Ostapchuk
IAIN McGREGOR/Fairfax NZ
CHEAT: Belarusian Nadzeya Ostapchuk was found to have taken drugs at the London Olympics, taking Val's gold.

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OPINION: The easy response to revelations of match-fixing and widespread illicit drug use in Australian sport is for Kiwis to shake their heads and say it could never happen here. That would be naive.

Pretending all New Zealand sportsmen and women are possessed of a special virtue that means they would never resort to the needle to win is foolish.

The Australian Crime Commission year-long investigation is just the latest in a string of episodes that underline the days of the "trust me" approach to drug taking in sport are long gone.

Belarusian shotputter and drug cheat Nadzeya Ostapchuk deprived Valerie Adams of her moment of glory on the podium at the London Olympics. Lance Armstrong, after years of bullying anyone who suggested he might be anything other than a model of rectitude on the issue, finally admitted that his Tour de France victories were drug-fuelled.

Both Ostapchuk and Armstrong were competing in sports that were supposed to be subject to rigorous drug testing. Ostapchuk was caught, Armstrong was not.

As Australian sport reeled from what has been described as its blackest day, New Zealand sporting figures were appropriately circumspect. They said they were unaware of drug-taking here, but all allowed for the possibility it could occur.

That recognises the reality of professional sport. At its highest levels sport is a tough business, where the victory that delivers the financial rewards is all that matters.

No allowances are made for injuries or for a body that is still recovering from a hard match the week before. The temptation for a professional athlete - or for those who manage the performance of that athlete - to take a chemical shortcut is immense.

Those who argue the solution to the drug-taking that pervades professional sport is to adopt a laissez-faire approach miss the point. Armstrong argued all he was doing as he cheated his way to seven yellow jerseys was levelling the playing field. Everyone else was at it as well was his implication.

That was not true. There were drug-free cyclists who were denied their shot at glory. And it is possible that if Armstrong had not used drugs he would never have won a race, and would not have amassed the large fortune he is now clinging to. In the end, his victories were stolen, not won.

Sport is about competition between athletes, not chemists.

What is needed now is a firm commitment to do what is necessary to catch drug cheats and then to impose career-ending punishments. The risk of being caught must be made so high and the punishments that follow so severe that it ceases to be a viable option.

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At the same time the sponsors who supply the big dollars should make it crystal clear that they do not want their brands sullied by drug cheats - and pull the plug without hesitation if their warnings are not treated seriously.

That will be in their financial interest anyway. Fans are not going to invest their money, time or emotions in sports that turn a blind eye to cheating.

- The Dominion Post

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