Shane Mosley, Roy Jones Jr, Antonio Tarver, Luis Nery, Tyson Fury and Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez. What do these names have in common? Apart from achieving the dream of many and becoming boxing world champions? They have all failed tests for banned substances. That is fact. Whether they were deliberately cheating or not will largely remain unknown. Not all of the names above have admitted to purposely using PEDs.
If we examine the use of Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) in modern sport, there are diverse reasons why one may choose to use and abuse. To increase endurance, explosiveness or even to lose weight. Whether you are an athlete of track and field, cycling, swimming or combat sports, the consensus is that these individuals are seeking an unfair advantage over their competition. And should be condemned accordingly.
As a sports fan. I don’t particularly care if a runner has illegally improved his performance so that he can shave a few seconds from his PB. If I were a clean competitor, I’d be raging but it wouldn’t affect or harm me physically. Emotionally it may make me more cynical and jaded although some would argue that isn’t possible. The same goes for cycling and swimming. Boxing however, is different.
If a cyclist is found abusing the rules regarding substances, they can be banned and their result can be scratched from the record books. All those who finished below them can be bumped up a place and balance is restored.
The problem with combat sports is that the results often have significant consequences. These are sports where competitors regularly suffer serious injuries, can have lifelong effects or, as boxing fans have witnessed recently, can ultimately die because of in ring events.
These consequences are why there need to be stricter rules and sanctions in place for those who test positive. The problem is applying consistent rules to everyone. This could prove logistically impossible. Consistency in boxing (at any level) is a rare commodity. The sport is fractured at the top end and this filters its way down through the professional game. It is difficult to envisage one body ever ruling over the sport but that is arguably what it would take to ensure the sport is as clean as possible.
Even if this dream scenario fails to become reality, something must be done. Whatever tests are put in place need to be high end. If only to keep up with the elite level cheats and the technology available to them. There is little logic in having a mid-level test in place, as those who are determined (and smart enough) to cheat will find ways around basic testing. Take the amount of time it took to convict Lance Armstrong as proof. So, every boxer must be subjected to advanced drug testing. So far so good.
If this advanced test is to be effective however, it must also be regular and random. Implementing such a test would be far from easy.
There are currently over 1,000 active male boxers listed on Boxrec in the U.K. Over 21,000 worldwide. Now, depending on how regular this theoretical drug test is, that is going to be a lot of trips to gyms and homes around the world. If, for example, one random test a month would suffice, that works out as approximately 252,000 tests per year.
Just how feasible is that? In the present model of boxing, who sanctions it? If one body were to be in charge, just how big is their budget? Assuming (as with most things in life) the best form of drug testing costs the most money, then the budget would need to be substantial.
If we acknowledge that perfect drug testing isn’t exactly around the corner, would a stronger deterrent help?
Ideally, drug cheats in combat sports would be banned for life. Hung, drawn and quartered if you listen to some. They share a circle of hell with murderers in the eyes of a very specific few. But how do you prove someone has purposely cheated? Unless guilt is freely admitted, intent is impossible to determine.
Realistically, even those who admit guilt are relatively free to move on. This is mainly due to the fractured structure of the sport. Russian heavyweight Aleksander Povetkin failed two separate tests prior to his WBC World title match against Deontay Wilder. Wilder rightly avoided the trip to Russia and Povetkin’s career lay in tatters. Except it didn’t. He promptly won a couple of low key bouts and out of nowhere is next in line to become mandatory challenger with the WBA. This man could very well be facing Anthony Joshua for the WBA, WBO and IBF belts. It is also worth noting that his ‘lifetime’ ban from the WBC lasted approximately 9 months and he is currently ranked as their fourth best heavyweight.
The other fly in the ointment of punishing the guilty (according to the test) is that some who are caught with elevated levels, may not have purposely cheated. The common excuse at present seems to be contaminated meat. Scottish athlete Alain Baxter claimed that his positive test was because he used a nasal inhaler. He had purchased it in the U.S, believing it contained the same legal ingredients as his normal version. However, having failed a test he discovered that it contained a banned stimulant.
As someone who pays very little attention to what I shovel into my body, it would be very hypocritical of me to judge those who fail tests through carelessness or by mistake. Guess that makes me a hypocrite! Bizarrely, I hold professional athletes to higher physical standards than I do myself.
Take the recent example of Canelo. Here is a man who earns millions of dollars per fight. He is backed by one of the most powerful promoters in boxing: Golden Boy Promotions. Now, I’m not saying that Oscar De La Hoya is personally going to monitor what Canelo puts into his body (through mouth or nose) but he can’t justifiably claim ignorance. It’s not good enough. If he isn’t going to note down every ingredient, then he should pay someone to do so. Even if we ignore the coincidence that he is a boxer who cuts a lot of weight and was busted for elevated levels of clenbuterol (a product known for helping that particular process) he should know better. Ignorance is not a good enough excuse. Not at the highest level.
The flipside of this argument would be for those who aren’t in Canelo’s privileged position. Imagine boxing on the road every weekend, either side of a full-time working week punctuated with sessions at the gym. What happens if one of these boxers fails a drug test but pleads innocence. Would the boxing public be more lenient? Possibly. They likely wouldn’t have the same control of someone in the upper echelons. I suppose it depends on where their butcher is based.
Wiser men than I will struggle to decisively come up with a solution to this massive problem. But someone has to soon, for the good of boxing.