What We Talk About When We Talk About Drugs

by Casey Barrett

The difference between cheating and partying in sport… 

There’s no honesty here, not on this subject. It can’t be touched by truth because the word itself is draped in unambiguous evil. I’m talking about drugs, of course. The scourge of sport, the athlete’s deal with the devil, the definition of selling your soul…

And it is those things. There’s nothing lower than a cheat. But do all drugs equal cheating? Are you kidding? So, why are athletes still being tested for recreational drugs, substances that hinder not enhance one’s performance, like cocaine and marijuana?

Earlier this week I read about former Gator All-American Omar Pinzon. Seems the Colombian backstroke champion tested positive for cocaine at his country’s national championships this month. (Yes, a Colombian on coke, resist the easy punch line…) Pinzon is one of the greatest swimmers from his continent. He’s the South American record holder in the 200 back (1:56.40) and one of Colombia’s all-time greats in the pool. His positive test will likely lead to a two-year ban from competition.

For a substance that is the exact opposite of performance-enhancing.

Consider that for a moment. This is fact – cocaine is guaranteed to reduce your performance. If I were training for a shot at an Olympic podium, I would want my competition to be staying out till dawn doing this drug. Advantage to the one not doing it!

Same goes for pot. These days it seems that a positive test for cannabis can get you a three-month ban. Second positive for smoking a bowl, you’re looking at a year. For something that slows you down. Literally.

My outlook on drug testing is rather bipolar, but I’m happy to make a case for these extremes. At one end, I believe that if you knowingly take something illegal that will unfairly enhance your performance, you should be banned for life. Not a few years, not an Olympiad, life. By cheating, you forfeit your right to play. I’m all for second chances and rehabilitation when we’re talking about the criminal justice system, but we’re not. This is sport. And sport, by beautiful definition, is supposed to be a fantasy land of fairness. There are clear rules, players play by them, and we determine winners and losers. Unlike life, where we live in a murky world of subjective grey. If you cheat those rules of performance and take something illegal to get ahead, goodbye, you’re no longer welcome.

On the other end of the spectrum, I’m of the opinion that, if you want to take recreational drugs in your spare time, drugs that do the opposite of enhance your performance, that is none of the drug tester’s business. And it certainly does not warrant any bans. Anyone who chooses to do so is making a trade-off — to take something that makes you feel good, but isn’t good for you. They’re also making a choice to use something that is illegal (or in the case of pot, in many states now, pseudo-legal…). These things can get you in trouble – with the law and with your own health. But they will not help you swim any faster.

So, why do the drug testers in sport continue to test for such things? Is drug testing about enforcing fair play? Or is it also about being a hall monitor for morality? Because if you’re going to ban someone, for any length of time, for taking something that hinders their athletic performance, then I’d question how honest the drug testing organization is being about its mission.

Back in 1998, many of you will recall the case against Gary Hall, Jr. If not, here’s a quick refresher story, written by Phil Whitten back then in Swimming World. For unknown and invalid reasons, back in 1997, FINA decided to start testing for marijuana. A year later, Gary was the most high profile athlete to test positive for this substance, one that had absolutely nothing to do with his success. This ridiculousness cost him quite a bit of money in lost sponsorships, and even more in tarnished reputation. He took the heat for scores of others; he was hardly the only Olympic swimmer known to inhale…

Yet, at the exact same time, there were flagrant cheaters out there, passing every last pee test, and making a mockery of the drug testing system so earnestly trying to protect the sport.

Over the last fifteen years, little has changed. A positive test for cocaine will get you a much longer ban than a positive for pot, for the simple reason that coke is a much harder, more dangerous Class A drug. It is also a drug that will much more drastically hurt your performance. I’m guessing Omar Pinzon already knows this. After all, his times at those Colombian Nationals where the positive test occurred were nowhere close to his lifetime bests.

How ironic is it that for his lack of commitment, using something that held him back, he may face a two-year ban from competition?