Clarity needed over role of drugs in sport

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IN the space of a couple of hours yesterday, Comrades Marathon winner Ludwick Mamabolo went from being an inspiration to a potential drug cheat.

The news that the first South African winner in seven years has tested positive for a stimulant that may not even have helped him that much has shocked sport fans.

But should the former hero be forever labelled a drug cheat?

Besides the fact that he deserves the basic right to be innocent until proven guilty, the drug problem in sport is anything but clear on what is right and what is wrong.

At the same time as Mamabolo is struggling for his reputation, arguably one of the world’s greatest sportsmen, Lance Armstrong, is again fighting to clear his name; and these two cases highlight the difficulty for administrators.

Armstrong claims to have been subjected to more than 500 tests for performance-enhancing substances. He has never failed a test.

On the basis of drug testing, Armstrong must be clean and Mamabolo must be a cheat.

But the drug wars in sport are simply a race between chemists. Leading are the men in white coats who are creating performance-enhancing substances, and chasing them are the administrators playing catch-up as they find tests to identify the drugs used to gain an advantage. The Armstrong detractors claim he had enough money to employ the best chemists.

Mamabolo could easily have fallen victim to a set of circumstances similar to that which engulfed Springbok rugby players Bjorn Basson and Chiliboy Ralepelle in 2010 when they tested positive for the same substance.

The sports supplement industry is not regulated, which creates the possibility for contaminated or mislabelled products. Or Mamabolo could innocently have taken something which he did not realise contained methylhexaneamine.

Sportsmen who knowingly take performance-enhancing substances deserve the harshest penalties and bans, but how can we ever be sure we are getting it right?

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