Give Mamabolo a chance
by Dr Ross Tucker
The unfortunate developing story around 2012′s Comrades Marathon champion Ludwick Mamabolo is an unwanted, but important reminder of the spectre of doping that hangs over elite sport. With the Olympic Games of 2012 on the horizon, doping is likely to be a common subject of discussion, and the case of Mamabolo illustrates some important principles in the fight against doping.
Mamabolo’s specific case, in which he tested positive for the banned stimulant methylhexanamine, remains on-going, and it would be rash to speculate around his innocence or presumed guilt until he has had the opportunity to present his case. If, as seems likely based on the media reports to date, he claims his innocence, then a panel will evaluate his arguments and rule whether he should be sanctioned or cleared of any wrong-doing.
The reality of doping cases, however, is more complex than this. It is easy to polarize the issue into a “cheat vs. innocent victim” scenario, when in truth there are possibilities between these extremes. One possibility is that the athlete has indeed taken a banned substance, but accidentally and without the intent to cheat. We must distinguish between these accidental cases of inadvertent doping, and the deliberate doping with the intention to cheat and gain an advantage over competitors, as is known to happen in elite sports – countless examples illustrate this, the most famous examples being Ben Johnson, Marion Jones, Jan Ullrich, Floyd Landis etc.
In the case of methylhexanamine, there is every possibility of this inadvertent form of doping, and this is a vital point because it serves as a significant lesson for ALL elite and aspirant elite athletes. There is in fact precedent for this – two South African rugby players (Bjorn Basson and Chiliboy Ralapele) tested positive for methylhexanamine in 2010, and both were cleared after it was proven that the banned substance was ingested because of contamination of a legal supplement. The same happened to another South African rugby player, Johan Goosen, and he was given a lenient sanction (3 months rather than 2 years) because he too showed that contamination, and not deliberate doping, was the cause of his failed test.
It’s important to recognize that the athlete is not “innocent” in these situations, but they are also not guilty in the somewhat simplified definition of the word. This is because when it comes to doping, elite athletes are “strictly liable” for any substance that is found in their bodies. Whether that substance comes from deliberate doping or a contaminated supplement, or perhaps a “mistake” where the athlete does not read the ingredients label carefully enough is immaterial to the ultimate verdict. Ignorance and accidents are not valid excuses in the anti-doping landscape. However, where this possibility exists, we must factor it into the sanction handed down. The Springbok rugby players were completely exonerated because they had taken every precaution to ensure that the risk of contamination would not be realized, but were ultimately ‘let down’ by the company producing the contaminated supplement – liability thus lay with those in management and corporate structures above the players. Other athletes have managed to reduce their sanctions, but not their guilt, by providing convincing evidence of the source of a contaminant. For Mamabolo, the defence will, it seems, revolve around the same argument.
The lesson that be learned by all athletes as a result of these kinds of stories is that supplement use is fraught with risk, as a result of contamination and poor manufacturing processes in the minimally regulated supplement industry. Contamination happens because quality control is insufficient and supplement ingredients are often mixed between legal and known illegal supplements. Given that there is very little evidence showing that supplements actually work, and given the apparent risk of failing doping controls even with “legal supplements,” athletes must seriously question whether they should take these products at all. It is more advisable to ensure that diet and training are optimal, and only then consider supplements in consultation with the South African Institute for Drug Free Sport and a dietician specializing in sports nutrition, to ensure that they take a supplement that is most likely to be uncontaminated.
In these cases where athletes fail doping tests after taking contaminated supplements, the athlete has ultimately been let down in part by “bad luck” (the risk of contamination is approximately 1 in 10, according to studies), but mostly by bad management, because this risk is known and can be reduced as much as humanly possible. This is in no way an opinion on Mamabolo’s case, and I stress again that the process must be allowed to play out so that an independent panel can evaluate his arguments. However, the key concept that must be drawn from these cases is that of education.
Whether doping is deliberate or inadvertent, it tarnishes the achievements of entire nations. The Olympics will turn the spotlight even more harshly on this practice, and complete transparency and wider education are the first steps in controlling and understanding the doping problem in sport.