A week before the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow last summer, it was revealed that Welsh 800m runner Gareth Warburton had failed a drugs test. Two days after the opening ceremony, it emerged that his teammate Rhys Williams, the reigning European Champion in the 400m hurdles, had also fallen foul of the testers.
Despite the pair protesting their innocence, both were branded as cheats and a shadow was cast over the Welsh athletics team, of which Williams was captain, that was only lifted by Sally Peake’s silver medal in the women’s pole vault on the penultimate day of competition in Glasgow. Media suspicion was immediately cast upon the South Wales-based supplement company Mountain Fuel.
Last week, UK Anti-Doping published a report that cleared Warburton and Williams of knowingly taking banned substances, concluding that a Mountain Fuel energy drink used by both athletes had been contaminated with an anabolic steroid.
The report also concluded that the athletes were guilty of negligence for not having been stringent enough about what they put into their bodies. They have now served bans of four and six months respectively as punishment for this negligence and are free to return to competition this year.
While it is pretty common for athletes who have failed drugs tests to claim that they are the victims of contamination, this is the first well-publicised case where the athletes’ assertions of innocence have been proven to be correct. It is unlikely that it will be the last.
This case has brought to the fore some of the most pertinent dilemmas facing elite athletes today. There is more and more pressure on athletes to push the boundaries of what is acceptable within the rules their sport in order to maximise their potential. Athletes’ dedication to gaining an advantage over their rivals has made the use of supplements increasingly complex and widespread.
For these two particular athletes, taking this particular supplement was a step too far and saw them publicly branded as cheats, while their peers who applied the same philosophies to their training were glorified as heroes.
With a view to returning to competition, Williams and Warburton have both openly encouraged other athletes to avoid all supplements and have stated their intentions to do so in future. Considering the harm that has been done to their careers as professional athletes and the heartache they may have suffered personally, other athletes may do well to heed their advice.
The world of sport is often akin to soap opera or pantomime and the line between hero and villain exacts a ruthless distinction that is constantly shifting. Last semester, Gair Rhydd’s Joe Atkinson questioned whether we now hold sportspeople to too high a standard. We are all too ready to chastise them for their mistakes.
In a reality where sportspeople are routinely bought and sold for millions of pounds and athletes are often encouraged to behave more like machines than people, compassion and understanding struggle to find a place in sport and sport media.
Almost every single athlete in Russia was recently lumped together in the category of sporting villain after a German television documentary alleged that ‘99 per cent’ of their national team engaged in doping that was systematically covered up by the Russian Athletics Federation. These allegations were made without testing being carried out and without the existence of solid evidence, but the judgement of the small but dedicated athletics community was brought down on Russian athletes them nevertheless.
If ongoing investigations find these allegations to be true, then these athletes and those who helped to cover up their deception are obviously far less deserving of compassion than Williams and Warburton. However, the principle that the public vilification of sportspeople is too intense, too generalised and is carried out a little too hastily continues to the Russian example.
This is a dangerous state of affairs when Germany has recently proposed introducing criminal convictions and possible prison sentences for sportspeople found guilty of doping.
The ethics around doping have never been more complex or more heated. With this in mind, Williams and Warburton are victims as much of timing as of circumstance. The ultimate fault in their undoing must of course lie with the athletes themselves. The lesson of their case must surely be that self-policing must play a significant part in working towards resolving the scourge of doping in sport.