© Copyright – 2024 – Athletics Illustrated

“The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.”
— James Baldwin, American essayist, and novelist.

President of World Athletics, Lord Sebastian Coe, announced this week that Olympic medallists will receive money for their medal-winning performances. Coe made the argument that the “world has changed.”

“I have to accept the world has changed,” Coe said Wednesday in an interview with Steve Scott at ITV.

“If you had asked me that question 30 or 40 years ago, I might have given you a different answer.”

Coe is not wrong and there is no equitable solution within his control.

The problem is the money

Currently, Kenya, for example, has a major doping problem in athletics. All levels of Kenyan athletes, from average to world-class are testing positive for banned performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). Or, they are missing test appointments in the Whereabouts program or have Athlete Biological Passport (ABP) anomalies in their blood profile. In some cases, tampering and bribery are alleged to have taken place.

According to the published global list of currently suspended athletes for doping-related offences, 82 Kenyans are benched at this time. Only Russia (88) and India (86) have more suspensions. The world’s largest country is experiencing a ban for their war in Ukraine. Previously, the nation was banned for systematic doping. In contrast, India’s doping issue is of chaos that stems from the economic disparity that exists between the world’s second-largest population and European, North Asian and North American countries.

For Kenyans and Indians, doping is worth the risk. Winning prize money can be life-changing. It is a path to earn more money than many will otherwise make during their lifetime. While the World Anti-Doping Agency or the International Olympic Committee attempts to claw back prize money from cheaters, it is unlikely and perhaps too costly to make the effort to take prize money from a cheating athlete who are from a poor country. Race events can not afford the expense of taking back money from cheaters who live deep in a rural “third-world” nation.

How much are we talking about?

The total prize purse World Athletics is offering medallists USD 2.4 million. Winners across each of the four dozen track and field events will receive $50,000 each. Relay teams will split the $50k. Starting in Los Angeles in 2028, silver and bronze medallists will also be paid.

According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics in 2017, the organization reported that the average semi-skilled farmer earned $89.03 per month. That is $1068 annually. Other sources suggest more, up to $300 per month. Regardless, to earn $50,000 in one go will allow an athlete to retire from the sport and perhaps farming — it is akin to a lottery win. In fairness, not everyone farms in Kenya, apparently police officers earn approximately $3000 per month.

According to Tuko News of Kenya, the average Kenyan salary across all jobs is 50,000 shillings monthly or just $385. Many are living in abject poverty. Why wouldn’t athletes want to risk their short athletic careers and reputation for a lottery win?

The rate of cheating in other nations experiencing third-world conditions is also high, as per India’s 86. A total of 88, 86, or 82 suspensions at one time would decimate Team Canada, the USA, the UK, France, and most other national teams.

While Ethiopia, is in similar economic disparity compared to the so-called first-world nations, the country has only 14 suspended athletes. The issue with Ethiopia is twofold. Currently, the Tigray War is going on. Risk to the safety of doping control officers would be an issue. Additionally, Ethiopia, unlike Kenya, is a more closed-off society, getting into the areas for testing is cumbersome. For out-of-competition testing, Ethiopians are not getting the same scrutiny as Kenyans.

In contrast, Canada (0), USA (11), France (7) and Germany (4) suggest that the risk in the so-called first world is not worth it. Out-of-competition testing is welcomed. There are athletes from many first-world nations who will use social media to thank doping control officers for doing their job to help keep the sport clean after an out-of-competition test. Reputational damage, shame and comparably low income potential are not worth the risk.

Should the solution not be about giving money? After all, the issue seems to be about those who do not have any. The bourgeois and the aristocratic had wished that sport remain amateur because it is not who is the best athlete who wins necessarily, but who is the most desperate. The fight for amateurism in sport lasted at least 100 years. Its death is nigh.

The Corinthian spirit described “one of the most virtuous of amateur athletes — those for whom fairness and honour in competition are valued above victory or gain.” Is this archaic? Perhaps so, but the original concern regarding working-class athletes competing with those who will do anything to win has come home to roost. The super shoe arguments aside, doping is a major issue and horrible for the marketing of the sport; crippling, to be frank. The super shoe issue (pay or lose; $300 – $500/pair), distracts from the real and apparently, unsolvable issue of doping-to-earn money. Not just money, but life-altering sums for those in need.

Artificial standards based on doping performances

World records continue to move forward at an alarming rate (in some events; where the money is), for example in the marathon (2:00:35 and 2:11:53). Major marathon events can offer appearance fees, prize money and notoriety, which begets sponsorships and more appearance fee opportunities.

The total prize purse for the 2024 London Marathon is $308,000 (£243,000). Winners receive $55k (£44k) each. The Boston Marathon has a prize purse of $1,137,500. Open marathon winners receive $150,000 each. Placing 10th, for a Kenyan, will provide a year’s salary. The Berlin Marathon offers €30,000 which is $32,000. The Chicago Marathon has a prize purse of $560,000. When Kelvin Kiptum of Kenya ran 2:00:35, winning the Chicago Marathon, he earned a whopping $200,000. He received $50,000 for the world record, $100,000 for the win and a $50,000 bonus from Nike as his sponsor. There may have been an appearance fee. Nike was not his only sponsor, he was also endorsing AmazFit out of China. For Kiptum, his three wins in less than a year made him a fortune.

The problem is that Kiptum’s record causes repercussions that are felt by all athletes slower than him; cheaters and non-cheaters alike. Although Kiptum never tested positive for doping and Athletics Illustrated is not suggesting otherwise, qualification standards for races and global championships are set against other performances. To make the Olympic team in the marathon the men now have to run 2:08:10 or faster and or be ranked top 80 in the world. For women, it is 2:26:50 and or top 80.

The current world records are 2:00:35 by Kiptum and 2:11:53 by Ethiopian Tgist Assefa, respectively.

There is no solution

There is no solution to the doping crisis going on in the sport of athletics. The issue reared its ugly head during the 1970s when the sport was ill-prepared to deal with it. The former East Germany and the former Soviet Union had systematic doping. China has had semi-systematic doping with the likes of Ma’s Army. And the US had semi-systemic doping in private enterprise, a mini-microcosm of the East Bloc issue in a far-right capitalist way. BALCO, known as the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative of San Francisco, supplied the biggest names in sports with PEDs, Barry Bonds, Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones and many others.

Some want to win to survive, some want to win at all costs, and some like Barry Bonds in major league baseball wanted to earn a fortune. The sport of athletics continues to battle market share against other popular sports like the very professional NASCAR, Football (soccer), NFL, MLB, NHL, and PGA among others.

It is a no-win situation. Adding prize money to the last bastion of amateur athletics throws fuel onto the fire. Perhaps Coe could throw that money at the bottomless pit of anti-doping.

Since the doping scourge has grown, each country has added a national anti-doping agency. There is the World Anti-Doping Agency, the Athletics Integrity Unit and task forces with lawyers who investigate organized and systematic doping. Additionally, there is the democratic counter in the Court of Arbitration of Sport and the European Court of Human Rights that is occasionally involved. Let’s not forget the International Olympic Committee, awash with money and flush to the brim with authority. Some countries are now making doping a criminal offence starting with the US and Kenya.

That’s what it will have to be going forward; a criminal offence with significant repercussions for cheaters.

Perhaps throwing money at the medallist will be akin to baiting the cheaters, therefore exacerbating the issue and pushing lawmakers to make doping a punishable crime.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.