USA Track And Field, strongly criticised for its stance on doping issues in recent months, has reacted dramatically by proposing a life ban for any athlete guilty of a serious abuse. The new measures drawn up by the USTAF committee would also see life bans for coaches of athletes who test positive.
The changes, voted for unanimously by a committee including the six-time Olympic medallist Jackie Joyner-Kersee and the sprinter Jon Drummond, will be considered by a sub-committee and voted on at the USATF's annual meeting on Sunday.
"I think the no-tolerance will say to all who participate in the sport, 'Don't even think about it'," Drummond said. "We do not want the cloud of negativity to constantly follow us, so we are going to lead the world once again by establishing something, maybe, many other countries will follow.''
Joyner-Kersee, the retired heptathlon world record-holder, termed the ban "the right way to go", adding: "People can see we are serious. We want our sport to survive."
The United States Olympic Committee recently threatened to strip USATF of its Olympic charter if it did not address doping issues more urgently. The scandal over the recently discovered "designer" steroid THG (tetrahydrogestrinone) - for which four US athletes are reported to have tested positive this summer - and the impasse over the case of Jerome Young, who was cleared to compete at the 2000 Olympics despite testing positive for steroids in 1999, are issues that will be addressed today at an International Olympic Committee executive board meeting in Lausanne.
In the case of Young, who has not admitted any offence, USATF has said it is bound by an arbitration ruling that protects anonymity in what it refers to as "the Olympic case" and all others from 1996 to 2000. But the latest announcement appears to signify a shift in attitude according to the USTAF chief executive, Craig Masback.
"In the old days, the absolute major concern was that there never be a violation of a single athlete's rights, because that would undermine the credibility of the whole [drug-testing] system," he said. "Now, they're saying one athlete cheating and getting caught can ruin the reputation of all athletes. That's a big change. The rights of the whole are being seriously taken into consideration."
The USATF currently operates the ruling standardised by the International Association of Athletics Federations, of a minimum two-year ban for a serious doping offence. A life ban is triggered by a second such offence.
There are two big questions over this initiative. The first concerns its legal basis. The IAAF reduced its ban from a minimum of four years in 1997 after pressure from the IOC to harmonise with other sports, and from individual federations such as the German one, which had been subject to legal challenges from athletes it had attempted to sanction. The athletes claimed a four-year ban constituted an unfair restraint of trade.
Masback, who has a law degree, accepted that the new measures could be challenged in the courts, but was confident they would stand up. Athletes are accountable to punishment under the rule of strict liability, which makes them responsible for whatever is found in their system. But there is no strict liability ruling for coaches, and establishing guilt by association would be a different matter entirely.
"The IAAF rules are deliberately couched so that individual federations can impose their own sanctions," a spokesman said. "All we stipulate is that the ban must be at least two years. But involving coaches in sanctions would be very tricky and would have to be addressed on a case-by-case basis."