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Sport Pulse

Christopher Taylor and the law vs spirit of sport

Published:Sunday | June 4, 2023 | 12:32 AMDr Akshai Mansingh/Contributor
Christopher Taylor competing at the World Athletics Championships at Hayward Field in Oregon last year.
Christopher Taylor competing at the World Athletics Championships at Hayward Field in Oregon last year.
Dr Akshai Mansingh
Dr Akshai Mansingh

THERE IS a big difference between the word of the law and the spirit of the law, as there is in the rules of sport and the spirit of sport. That sport was perceived to be governed by etiquette rather than the rules would have led to the phrase “it’s not cricket” instead of “it’s not Law”. The recent case of 400-metre athlete Christopher Taylor, as reported, was not cricket.

It’s not that sport did not have its “rule benders” but it was considered unbecoming and frowned upon. Yet, with the professionalisation of sport, with heightened financial rewards and glory, the spirit was often overlooked. Performance enhancing through unethical means became rampant, especially among those who could afford it.

The “world” came together to set rules against doping. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was set up in 1999 to level the playing field. Carrying its own biases, it was predominantly to prohibit performance-enhancing drugs and practices with a zero-tolerance attitude. Performance enhancement? The banning of ganja but not alcohol, for example, had everything to do with cultural preferences of the enforcers and little to do with the science of performance enhancement. But overall, the intention was good. What it certainly succeeded in doing was to enrich illicit scientists and their practices, who produced designer performance-enhancement drugs and methods that typically benefited the richer nations. Designer steroids and hormones that made athletes stronger or last longer were undetectable and led to world records and medals, even if it led to the athlete’s demise in short order. Sprinters benefited, cyclists thrived, and weightlifters smiled; but WADA was there to stop it all.

State-sponsored doping prevailed in many nations that were or still are at the top of the medal tables. Many American sports organisations decided not to adopt WADA as doping was so rampant that curtailing it would have led to a threat of the survival of that sport as it was known. The cat and mouse game between scientists and WADA has continued for almost three decades.

WADA now stores samples for decades and can retroactively strip athletes of their medals and records if it catches up with the technology used to cheat and can pick up illegal drugs retrospectively. Although initially, only urine was tested and stored, blood samples and other body tissues are now tested.

A zero-tolerance policy is maintained so the onus is on the athlete to maintain innocence. It is a case of guilty until proven innocent if there is any deviation. To ensure that all cheaters are caught, athletes could be tested during competition, out of competition or ultimately any time doping officers wish. Top athletes had to start giving time slots in each day during which they were definitely going to be at a given location and were open to testing. Most would give a time when they were sure to be home, often sleeping, like the middle of the night. This had to be submitted weeks in advance, and if there was a change in plans, it had to be logged on a computerised system. And all countries were forced to sign on to the code.

If, for any reason, one was not where they said they would be, they were deemed guilty and warned. Three such violations were as good as taking the most vile performance-enhancing drug. I remember when cricket introduced the whereabouts regulations, many from volatile countries objected, stating that publishing where they were constantly could pose a security threat to them. That fell on deaf ears.

An army of testers, called doping control officers, were licensed to perform the tests. Once notified, they stayed with the athlete, irrespective of what the athlete was doing until they procured the sample. They watched athletes perform the most personal and often intimate acts, kept them in direct vision, watched them produce urine samples in full view and left only after that. Any deviation was deemed as a violation. This could be at the end of a race, during the time the athlete stipulated that they were available on any given date, or at complete “random” times. Once they made contact with you, they stuck with you. For the last instance, the “random” tests, the violation occurred only after they made contact with the athlete. One strike and you are out, unlike the whereabouts violation for which you have three strikes.

Athlete education as well as doping officer education became as important as the testing itself. Athletes had to know everything they consumed. Food, drinks, supplements and even medications. Many an athlete has been prescribed medications by doctors who are not au fait with prohibited drugs and got banned. That’s the Law.

The case of Taylor, who was reportedly followed to the airport by doping officers who demanded a sample, brings into question the Spirit.

Having been in Jamaica for a period, they saw it fit to test him on the day of departure. Left with a hard decision of missing his flight that he was about to board or missing the test, he opted for the latter. Apparently, he thought it would count as strike one of three in the whereabouts category, and not strike one of one in the “random testing” category.

He now faces a possible ban of four years, to be determined by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). If you thought that elicit scientists made money, try the lawyers. For a start, CAS is a private court in Switzerland, answerable to no one, who have been given the authority by WADA as the final arbitrator.

Appeals to their decisions, rarely successful, are made to European courts and therefore already biased to their laws, traditions, culture and beliefs. It is not publicly funded and therefore the athlete, unlikely to succeed in their appeal, has to bear enormous legal fees.

Whereas there is no room for cheating in sport and the Law must be followed, time has come to revisit the Spirit. A system that is compassionate, culturally sensitive, and financially accessible to all needs to be looked at.

Surely, with sport being a multibillion-dollar business, and with sporting bodies being mega rich, a review to mix the Law and the Spirit can be visited.

Sport Pulse and Sport Matters are fortnightly columns highlighting advances that impact Sport. We look forward to your continued readership.

Dr Akshai Mansingh is Dean, Faculty of Sport, UWI. He can be reached at