The issue of doping in sport came back into the spotlight this week with the news that Liverpool defender Mamadou Sakho tested positive for a banned diuretic in the aftermath of his side’s Europa League match against Manchester United.
One can’t help but feel that UEFA are as much in a state of panic as Liverpool and Sakho. They don’t know what to do with the doping issue. They never have.
The issue of drugs in sport is by no means black and white. The grey area is wide. And UEFA’s boat is so small.
They are not alone, of course. The issue has reared its ugly head in tennis and boxing in recent months. It has taken permanent residence in the world of athletics.
The official line from UEFA is that the result, and the outcome, stands. The 1-1 draw at Old Trafford was enough to see Liverpool through. Sakho, as one man, was not enough to affect the outcome. According to their rules, he would need to be in cahoots with a teammate for the result to have been affected.
Sakho’s performance may not have been revelatory, but it was certainly important. The result probably didn’t hinge on his inclusion, but it could have. Had he risen majestically at the back post in the 93rd minute to head in a match-winning goal, the end result would have been the same.
If this had been a FIFA policy in 1986 and Diego Maradona (and I’m not suggesting this was the case in any way) had been caught doping after the event; would anyone be able to argue against his importance to the Argentina side?
The same could be said of Zidane for France in 1998, or at the 2000 European Championships. Or of Steven Gerrard, for Liverpool in 2005.
Again, I am not in any way suggesting anything untoward, merely highlighting the difference one player can make.
Whilst UEFA trumpet this policy, they take a wildly different view to those pesky ineligible players.
In 2014, Celtic were thumped 4-1 by Legia Warsaw in Poland, before losing 2-0 at home in the second leg. Legia were removed from the Champions League – with Celtic reinstated – because it then transpired that Legia player Bartosz Bereszynski was ineligible to play, due to an administrative error.
Bereszynski’s contribution to the tie? Three, yes three, uneventful minutes as a substitute at the end of the second leg.
Rules is rules though. No grey area. UEFA acted swiftly and mercilessly.
To have done so in the Sakho case, would have needed the drug test result to have come to light much more quickly and here lies another issue; the time it has taken.
Liverpool have dispensed of their next opponent in the Europa League now, with Sakho playing the full 90 minutes of both legs. To reinstate United, is to reinstate Borussia Dortmund as well, and replay that quarter final fixture.
You see, football moves on quickly. Even if a drug test result only takes a couple of weeks to come to light, as many as four more games, in multiple competitions could have taken place. Swift action is not easy and to expel a team or reverse a result would lead to appeals and quite possibly legal proceedings, meaning potential havoc in the footballing calendar. This is an issue that football shares with many sports, with boxing being one of the only ones to have real ‘thinking time’.
Last month, Lucas Browne travelled to Chechnya and got off the canvas to pick up a version of the WBA world heavyweight title, by stopping Ruslan Chagaev in the 10th round. VADA conducted drug tests before and after the fight.
It then came to light that Browne’s post-fight drug test had come back positive for traces of Clenbuterol. Clenbuterol is a drug generally used to aid breathing in asthma sufferers but can also be used to shed weight. Not really something that heavyweights generally feel the need for.
Browne has vehemently denied knowingly taking the drug and believes foul play occurred, pointing to fellow heavyweight Fres Oquendo’s positive test there two years earlier.
A clean test, conducted six days before the fight, as well as the Oquendo situation, are a large part of Browne’s defence.
As Browne – who has since passed a voluntary polygraph test – would be unlikely to defend his version of the world title until the summer, the WBA is afforded some room for composure and thought. They have remained pretty much silent in the seven weeks since the fight.
There are plenty of previous doping cases in boxing that they can draw on. Fernando Vargas tested positive for the steroid stanozolol after his 2002 defeat to Oscar De La Hoya. He was fined $100,000 (a fraction of his earnings for the fight) and banned for 9 months.
A 9 month ban in boxing is like banning a football player until the middle of next week.
Roy Jones Junior, Andre Berto, Antonio Tarver and James Toney are just some of the more famous names that have tested positive for steroids in recent years. All received bans of a year or less.
In a sport where steroids can mean the difference between life and death, for the opponent as well as the user, you would think the stance would be more firm.
If the governing bodies in boxing had been handing out bans of five years or more in previous doping cases, rather than bans of less than a year, it would be further reasoning as to why Browne wouldn’t have risked his career.
The watchful eye of the sporting world also falls on the International Tennis Federation, as it considers what to do with Maria Sharapova’s recent failed drugs test. On hearing she had received a positive test, for Meldonium, the former Wimbledon champion came clean.
She was subsequently suspended, on a provisional basis, and then, well, then nothing. Sharapova, her legal team, and the general tennis-watching public wait to hear what the punishment will be.
Meldonium is a drug generally used to relieve the symptoms of coronary artery disease. It does this by boosting metabolism and endurance. It had been prescribed to Sharapova by her family doctor since 2006.
The fact that the drug was not on the banned list until this year should not make the ITF’s decision on disciplinary action any harder to come by. Not unless that is in their own rules and regulations and, as far as this writer is aware, it isn’t.
And that is why that grey area is so large and gives organisations like UEFA, the ITF, the WBA, the International Olympic Committee and countless others, enormous headaches.
Sakho, who has denied knowingly taking the banned substance, is considering what to do next.
In 2011, his teammate Kolo Toure, whilst at Manchester City, was banned for six months for admitting to taking a weight-loss drug, bendroflumethiazide. The judgment, delivered by an FA disciplinary panel, meant that Toure missed only 12 weeks or so of football as the ban crossed over the pre-season period from mid-May to mid-August.
The story goes that it was a diet supplement recommended to him by his wife. Toure’s defence was that he had become obsessed with his weight.
So there is at least one previous case that UEFA can draw on. Toure, like Sakho, denied knowingly taking the banned substance. A six month ban would mean Sakho will miss the European Championships in his home country but, like his fellow teammate five years earlier, pre-season would render much of the ban moot.
Whatever UEFA’s punishment though, the tournaments and personal ambitions that Sakho misses out on should have no bearing on the length of the ban.
We do know, thanks to previous cases that UEFA’s response, however harsh it may be, will have no bearing on Liverpool’s recent endeavours.
And this is where we come to deterrents. Or lack of them.
How much would a player really need to consider taking a banned substance if they knew their actions would affect their whole team?
Sakho stands accused of taking a substance to get rid of a bit of holiday weight, not a substance designed to dramatically improve his performance.
Would he risk that if he knew it could mean the collapse of Liverpool’s entire season?
Let’s remember here, that Sakho, unlike Lucas Browne, is not claiming foul play occurred. Nor is there a suggestion that the substance occurred naturally in his system. There is no denial it was there. What his defence will rely on, is how it got there.
Sakho is likely to claim that it was in a supplement that he took, and believed to be legal. And the likelihood is that is true.
But doesn’t that, much like the Sharapova situation, throw up more questions and concerns?
On the 31st of December, Meldonium was legal. On the 1st of January, it wasn’t. They didn’t change the ingredients. They didn’t add more ‘donium to it. For 10 years, Sharapova was doping. Legally, of course.
Sakho was taking a supplement, believing it to be legal, designed to aid weight loss in some way. Is that not doping? Is that not trying to gain an advantage through means other than what God gave you?
Weight loss would make Sakho quicker, more agile and increase his reaction speed. His performance would be enhanced.
Most football players, like tennis players and athletes, will take whatever supplement they are given, so long as it is provided by a coach or medical professional. In most cases, the list of ingredients on the back deemed not important enough for them to worry their professionally coiffured little heads about.
If they are taking supplements, aside from illness remedies, they are legally doping. Trying to get whatever advantage they can. The unsuspecting fan thinks he is seeing humanity at its fastest/strongest/most majestic, but in many cases it is not.
The ‘legal’ supplements of today are the banned substances of tomorrow. When they were taken shouldn’t even come into it.
Mamadou Sakho, will have felt safe in taking whichever substance contained the banned diuretic, because it was probably given the thumbs up by a doctor or medical professional. If the consequences for Sakho was a five year ban, and Liverpool’s removal from (at least) the Europa League, would he have taken it?
Naivety – and in Kolo Toure’s case, stupidity – is not a defence and neither is assuming the responsibility lies with someone else.
The grey area will always remain and will only grow as doping becomes more and more sophisticated. If UEFA, and other sporting bodies, want to deal with the drugs issue, they need to tackle it head on with draconian punishments for competitors, and their clubs if need be.
At the moment, the court of public opinion is what delivers the harshest punishment and is what sportsmen and women fear the most. That needs to change.