A leap in the dark for sponsors facing drug test

Will the continued failure of drug test procedures in athletics discourage big-name sponsors from injecting money into international events?

Olga Yegorova’s name is now better known than the Russian athlete could ever have thought possible. But unfortunately for her, notorious rather than famous is a more accurate adjective.

Yegorova is the 5,000m runner who was banned on the eve of the athletics World Championships in Edmonton earlier this month, after failing a drug test. She was later reinstated because the proper test procedures were not followed. To cap the embarrassment of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), which had introduced and then been forced to withdraw the ban, she went on to win a gold medal.

Her reinstatement triggered demands for more action against those athletes found guilty of using banned substances. Athletes are now running with red ribbons on their vests to proclaim their willingness to be blood tested at any time. Yegorova has been vilified, perhaps unfairly, as under IAAF guidelines blood and urine tests have to be carried out at the same time; in Yegorova’s case they were not. Because the procedure itself was compromised Yegorova was reinstated. And there has been much hand wringing, moralising and hypocrisy since.

But the most telling comment came last week – ten days after the end of the games. Russia’s head coach Valery Kulichenko – in an attempt to defend his athlete – said that he knew Yegorova was not taking the banned growth hormone erythropoietin (EPO), for which she tested positive after July’s IAAF Golden League meeting in Paris, because: “It is so expensive we just don’t have the money to buy it.”

Not that its use is prohibited. Not that it is wrong to seek an advantage through a needle and syringe, but that EPO, drug of choice for many Tour de France riders in the scandal-hit 1998 race, is too expensive.

But there is a lot of money available for successful athletes. As well as concentrating on the Wold Championships, Yegorova – until 12 months ago, a useful but not outstanding 5,000m runner, who finished eighth at last year’s Olympics – has been focusing on the IAAF Golden League – a series of seven one-day meetings held in Rome, Paris, Oslo, Monaco, Zurich, Brussels and Berlin.

The Golden League’s lure for an athlete is three-fold. Only the best athletes are invited to compete, so attendance helps when negotiating sponsorship deals; the prize money is the best around; more importantly there is also the IAAF Golden League Jackpot. Any athlete who wins the same discipline five times out of the seven meetings will share in a jackpot of 50kg of gold, worth about £300,000.

Yegorova has won both events since the World Championships in Zurich and Brussels, and goes into tomorrow night’s final event in Berlin knowing that if she wins she can claim a share of that jackpot.

In any sport that would be a lot of money. In athletics it is a fortune and perhaps goes some way to explaining why athletes will take risks with banned substances.

But what will the IAAF do if Yegorova claims her fifth victory? They will have to give the greatest financial prize in athletics to a runner who has failed a drug test at one of its events.

Is that really the message the sponsors – this season including the likes of Exxon Mobil and Honda – and broadcasters want to be associated with? Well we don’t really know, because although the sponsors, along with the broadcasters, effectively bankroll the sport, they have been remarkably quiet on the subject of the IAAF’s drugs policy. Perhaps they believe that it is for the sport to sort out, but while the IAAF struggles to come to terms with proper testing, other sponsors may be more wary of being linked with the sport.

Yegorova was not the only athlete who failed a drug test this summer. The Brazilian 800m runner Fabiane dos Santos has been banned for life after testing positive for the steroid testosterone in Edmonton, while Saidi Sief, the Algerian who won the 1500m gold medal also failed a drugs test in Canada.

Yet despite these successes, the biggest failure of all has been the IAAF’s drugs policy. Even when they caught somebody red handed using a drug that builds stamina and is viewed as a growing menace in distance running, they had to let her go on a technicality. The feeling remains that there are many athletes still out there using drugs and not being caught. And despite what the IAAF has said, that will continue to be the case.

In normal circumstances it’s easy to imagine how much additional PR spin sponsors would be seeking from association with an athlete who claimed part of the Golden League’s pot of gold – previous winners have included sprinter Marion Jones and hurdler Gail Devers. But this year, if Yegorova claims the prize, no one will be queuing to sign her up for an endorsement campaign. Except perhaps in Russia, where Yegorova is seen as the victim of an old-style conspiracy of the West.

After winning the 5,000m final in Edmonton, Yegorova did not stay around to run a lap of honour. She left the track with the boos of the crowd ringing in her ears. If she wins in Berlin tomorrow she may make a similar decision.

A victory would also force coach Kulichenko to come up with an alternative defence for his athlete. I don’t know how much EPO costs, but I suspect you could buy a large amount for a share of 50kg of gold.

Tom O’Sullivan is sports page editor of the Financial Times

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