Keeping sport clean
When you have a runny nose, you run to the neighbourhood pharmacy or you reach for the medicine cabinet. You grab and swallow some over-the-counter pill or medicine in the certain knowledge that a safe remedy has been put to work.
Athletes in sports, policed by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), can't do that. For them, popping that pill or slurping down that cold remedy could put them in big trouble.
It's a different ball game for them. To chase drug cheats out of sport, WADA has an extensive list of banned substances, substances which give athletes illegal performance enhancement. The typical cold remedy contains ephedrine, which can act as a stimulant.
The banning of stimulants, steroids, human growth hormones, blood doping and the like is just one plank of WADA's effort to keep sport clean.
In fact, some substances are banned not because they are performance enhancers, but because they are deemed as unhealthy. One of global sport's goals is to promote health and wellness. So narcotics are banned too, even though they aren't necessarily aids to performance.
The main partner of the banned list is the drug test. For decades, in sports like athletics and others contested at the Olympics, athletes would provide urine samples for testing. At first, these samples would be given at competitions or tournaments. Now testing is year round, to prevent athletes 'souping up' in the off season and competing clean, with the benefit of drug-assisted training, and winning.
The Jones case
New developments have tightened the druggie dragnet. When American sprinter Marion Jones got in trouble a decade ago, she didn't fail a drug test. Instead, standard detective work proved without a doubt that she was using banned substances. A mountain of evidence told the tale.
In another parallel to how criminal cases are resolved, some athletes can now trade information in the hope of getting less severe punishment. The Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay cases are good examples.
Gatlin cooperated with the authorities when he tested positive a second time in 2006. Instead of getting a life ban, he was able to return four years later. More recently, Gay might have got the two-year maximum sentence for a first-time offender, but came back in 12 months.
Cooperation has a price. Even though the authorities gain information to help them catch evildoers along the drug supply chain, this plea-bargain mechanism gives the sport a black eye by letting offenders back into the sport.
Make your own choice. Would you prefer to make an example of one offender or would you prefer to choke off the supply chain?
While you ponder that, remember that the WADA-compliant athlete can't just pop down to the pharmacy when she has a runny nose. Puss and dog don't have the same luck.
n Hubert Lawrence has scrutinised athletics since 1980.