Drugs In Sport: Uncertainty leads to embarrassment

Differing punishments for the use of recreational drugs leaves large loopholes.

Mike Rowbottom
Saturday 12 December 1998 00:02 GMT

ON THE day the Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati regained his Olympic gold medal on appeal after testing positive for cannabis, it was suggested to his team leader, Carol Anne Letheren, that as the rules stood, anyone could compete, even if they were high as a kite.

"Under these rules, yes," she replied.

The high-profile farce at the Winter Olympics in Nagano 10 months ago illustrates the widespread uncertainty with which sport's governing bodies view drugs normally perceived as recreational.

The International Olympic Committee subsequently resolved to add cannabis to its list of banned substances in time for the 2000 Games, something it may be able to announce this weekend as it concludes an annual review of its list of banned substances and procedures.

Until the list is officially renewed on 31 January next year, however, any sanctions imposed on those testing positive for cannabis are left to the discretion of individual sporting federations.

In Nagano, Rebagliati benefited from a loophole in the International Ski Federation regulations, which were found not to have jurisdiction over the new Olympic sport of snowboarding. But Letheren pointed out that the FIS regarded Rebagliati's slalom event as a technical sport in which taking cannabis would have a detrimental effect.

In Britain, the Football Association deals with each positive finding for recreational drugs "on its individual merits". The confusion over the issue is mirrored in the findings of The Independent's drug survey. Asked whether competitors found to have taken recreational drugs such as cannabis, ecstasy or LSD should be stripped of their titles, opinion was split - 45 per cent said yes, 52 per cent no and three per cent didn't know.

The case of Danny Harris, the former Olympic 400 metres hurdler, illustrates some of the anomalies in the stance of governing bodies towards recreational drugs.

In 1996 Harris, silver medallist at the age of 18 in the 1984 Olympics, was banned for life after a second positive test for cocaine, which is on the IOC banned list. He had already served a two-year ban for a first offence, during which time he had attended rehabilitation.

Nobody ever suggested that cocaine acted as a performance-enhancer for Harris. In his autobiography, Britain's Olympic 400m silver medallist Roger Black recalls how the man he regards as the most talented athlete he ever trained with undermined that talent because of addiction. "Cocaine was not making him a better athlete, it was making him worse," he said.

The use of recreational drugs appears likely to divide opinion in sporting circles for some time to come.

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