Forensics Can’t Weed Out Cheats

This article was kindly contributed by Dr. Nic Groombridge.

Dr. Nic Groombridge is the author of Sports Criminology recently published by Policy Press. It examines the relationship between sport, crime and criminology. It covers topics from the violence of sports stars to organised corruption. Doping is a sometimes seen to be the action of a bad, ‘cheating’ individual but the recent reports on the situation in Russia suggest State involvement. Criminology does look at such things but has tended to ignore them within sport. Some of the stories in this article but not the conclusions drawn from them come from Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat: The Science behind Drugs in Sport by Chris Cooper.



The 100 metres men’s final at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 has become known as the most corrupt race ever. Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal after he was quickly shown to have used the steroid stanozolol but over the course of their careers six of the eight finalists tested positive for using or supplying banned substances. Only fourth placed, Calvin Smith, and sixth placed, Robson de Silva, have clean careers. A competitor for the crown of most corrupt race might go the women’s 1500 metres World Championship final in Helsinki in 2005. All five of the first five women (four Russians and one French) have doping bans before or after the event but as with the men’s 100m several received medals.

Clearly the science behind the tests used to ban these athletes is akin to forensic science but in the service of the laws of sport. The banning of Tatyana Tomashova, first over the line in Helsinki, even involved the use of DNA tests. Her samples from drug tests at different events were shown by those tests to be from different people.


Who to ban?


Carl Lewis was awarded the gold medal in Seoul when Johnson was banned but earlier that year at the US trials he was found to have used the stimulants pseudoephedrine, ephedrine and phenylpropanolamine. The US Olympic Committee did not then ban athletes where it could be demonstrated that there was no deliberate attempt to enhance performance. So forensic tests can determine who has taken certain substances but only the law of the country or the rules of the sport can determine whether that is cheating or illegal.

Gymnastics did ban Andreaa Raducan from the Sydney games in 2000 for the use of one of the same stimulants as Lewis, pseudoephedrine contained in a cold remedy. British skier Alain Baxter blamed the finding of levomethamphetamine in his test result from using a decongestant inhaler at the Salt Lake Winter Olympics of 2002. The US version of the inhaler was said to have a different formulation to that he used at home. It was also argued that in the amounts found no performance enhancing effect would be achieved. He lost his bronze medal regardless.

Adam Yates has recently won the White Jersey in the Tour de France as best young rider. His twin brother, Simon, has recently been banned for four months from cycling for non-intentional doping when terbutaline was found in his sample. His team accepted responsibility saying his doctor had failed to apply for a Therapeutic Use Exemption for his asthma treatment. As a back of the pack runner and very low level sportsman – judo, rugby, triathlon – I have never been drug tested but I have used cold remedies to enable my performance. This would have led to a competitive ban – but would never have stopped me running – and it was my health not the medal table that was in danger




Some States in the US have legalised marijuana, sometimes for medical purposes, but the US doping agency is adamant in maintaining a ban; with no therapeutic exemptions. My teenage usage was performance damaging. Some have suggested the legalisation of all or categories of drugs in wider society. In sport some have suggested that the science of the dopers will always be ahead of the testers. There are principled – freedom to abuse our bodies without surveillance of State or Governing Body – and pragmatic arguments for legalisation or decriminalisation. We might also consider whether the rules of sport should be so far out of line with society’s.

When Ben Foster played ‘drugs cheat’ Lance Armstrong in the film The Program his method acting saw him training like Armstrong, down to using performance enhancing drugs. Is that cheating or dedication? If I wrote this article under the influence of Modafinil rather than a glass of red wine would I have cheated? Usain Bolt’s diet of chicken nuggets is supplemented by injected calves’ blood, honey and extracts from crests of cockerels. Is that cheating? It would be if the governing body decided it was. If vitamins work they should be banned if they don’t then athletes are being conned.




Different drugs at different times and between different sports may be banned. Big money US sports were slower to embrace testing that others. The difficulties the IOC faced in deciding whether to bar the whole Russian team indicates that we are no longer – ever? – dealing with individual cheats but international relations and very big business. Forensics and science more generally can only catch what it is told to catch. Might science be better employed caring for the health of athletes and wider society and forensics used more on murderers than milers, psychopaths not cyclists and burglars not bunglers?



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