Competitions should be decided in the arena, not with paperwork

OUR Filipino athletes are, by all accounts, enjoying remarkable success competing in the Southeast Asia Games 2022 being held in Hanoi, Vietnam. Unfortunately, that success has been marred by the departure of the Philippines' bodybuilding team, who were barred from the games due to missing paperwork.

The team of eight men and one woman arrived in Hanoi last Wednesday to prepare for their competition, but they were informed by event organizers that they were ineligible because the team “had not provided sufficient evidence that the athletes had done doping tests three weeks in advance.” The team then spent the next several days trying to salvage their trip, but were denied. On Sunday, the day they should have been competing, they returned home to the Philippines.

According to a news report by Agence France-Presse, Chetan Pathare, a technical delegate for the event, explained that, “The doping certificate, the clearance certificate, is a must. It clearly mentioned [in an event handbook], and [was] not complied by the Philippines.” The Vietnam sports officials had “well informed” all the national Olympic committees involved in the Games about the rules, he said, adding, “That is the only reason they (the bodybuilders) were not allowed.”

The incident was far from the first time a squabble over anti-doping measures has taken attention away from an international sporting event, largely due to the inconsistency with which such rules are enforced. At the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing in February, 15-year-old Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva was permitted to compete despite failing a drug test for banned substances just days earlier. Valieva was favored to win her competition, but turned in a poor performance after the stress and distraction from the controversy, finishing fourth.

There are a couple of issues that need to be addressed in the sad story of our bodybuilders. The one closest to home is whether or not Philippine sports officials or the managers for the bodybuilding team were actually remiss in fulfilling the requirements, and if so, whether or not that was negligence or a misunderstanding of the rules. We suspect that the latter may be the case, given the careful wording by the SEA Games official that the team “had not provided sufficient evidence” of the required testing, not that the testing had not been done.

The second issue is the inflexibility of the SEA Games organizers in refusing to allow the bodybuilding team to compete. Whether or not the team had their doping tests prior to the games, they were still available for four entire days before the competition was to take place, and alternative arrangements could have been made. There is ample precedent for flexibility in enforcement, and so long as the athletes were not intentionally trying to cheat — and there is absolutely no evidence of that — facilitating their opportunity to compete should have been the priority. Sports officials here in the Philippines should consider this in lodging a strong, official protest over the matter.

Finally, there is the matter of whether anti-doping measures have become so intrusive and complicated that they are working against the goals of international sporting competitions. It is not that doping, the use of substances to try to artificially increase one's strength and performance, shouldn't be monitored and prevented, but the vast number of rules have become a slippery slope. All top-flight athletes engage in practices that could broadly be described as “doping” to try to put their bodies in peak condition for competition, including following strict diets and the use of various nutritional supplements. The line between what is acceptable practice and what is not has not only become razor-thin, it seems to be constantly moving. This has led to a growing number of instances — such as that of the Russian figure skater — where athletes training in good faith are not even aware they are violating anti-doping rules.

The ultimate aim of organized international sport should be to promote friendly, healthy competition, and the positive qualities sports represent. The world's anti-doping authorities, while no doubt having good intentions, seem to have lost that plot, and should reassess whether what they are doing is helping or hurting.

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