Tyson Gay leniency shows amnesties for drug cheats will be hard to swallow
Tyson Gay is the second fastest 100m runner in history. He is also a confirmed drug cheat. But next month, just a year after testing positive multiple times for anabolic steroids, he will be free to compete again after the US Anti-Doping Agency sliced his ban from two years to one.
One year! No wonder many in track and field are incensed. It is not so much a ban as a time-out.
Gay reportedly used a steroidal cream from an "anti-ageing specialist" that contained testosterone, human-growth hormone and two other banned substances. The label on the jar claimed the cream was "100% All Natural". The showed it was anything but.
There were certainly raised eyebrows when Gay received a shorter sentence than his fellow sprinter Asafa Powell, who only weeks ago got 18 months for a lesser offence: taking a stimulant, oxilofrine, that he claimed came from a legal supplement Epiphany D1.
The difference between the two punishments is easily explained: Powell did not provide any great help to the Jamaica Anti-Doping Commission, while Gay spoke loud and long to Usada. What he told them is still secret, but the whispers are that it involves athletes and coaches from more than one sport. It could be highly significant.
Even so, there is still unease that article 10.5.3 of the World Anti-Doping Agency's code enables an athlete to have up to 75% of his or her ban reduced if they provide "substantial assistance" to anti-doping authorities.
As Stuart McMillan, performance director/sprint coach at the World Center in Arizona, where athletes such as the 110m hurdles world‑record holder Aries Merritt trains, put it: "No sane person can find justification in Powell receiving an 18-month ban for inadvertent stimulant use while Gay receives a 12-month ban for purposeful steroid use – cooperation or no cooperation."
But that is nothing compared to what is coming next in the war on doping. Under Wada's new code from January 2015, athletes who cheat could get a full amnesty and complete anonymity in exchange for information – and keep their prize money too.
Obviously the bar for doing a deal is set high. Anti-doping agencies would not only want caught dopers to sing for their suppers, but for their breakfasts and lunches too.
It is entirely possible that a big-name athlete could soon test positive and for the general public to never know, and for the guilty party to carry on as if nothing happened.
That will upset many in sport. Quite understandably, too. But as one senior anti-doping official admitted to me: "While it's controversial and it will be unpalatable to some, the consensus is that it is worth trying. We know that if you keep doing the same things you get the same outcome."
No one would dispute that. The endless cha-cha between anti-doping authorities and cheat has gone on for 40 years, despite huge improvements in testing procedures. Every time the good guys make a quick step forward, the dark side of sport responds.
Those involved in fighting doping insist the new policy is not about them going soft on cheats. Rather, they are changing the ground where combat takes place.
Anti-doping agencies know that intelligence and investigations matter at least as much as random testing. Indeed, testing at events is often a box‑ticking exercise which allows sports to say they are clean when we know steroids are often most effective when taken months, not days, beforehand – when an athlete is training not competing.
Wada's changes do not end there. At the moment if an athlete confesses to taking steroids the four-year ban is usually reduced to two. Under the new code, four years will mean four years – unless accomplices are named.
What is trying to do is to change incentives for those tempted to cheat, and those who are caught. For the latter the choice is particularly stark: help us bring down others or that's your lot for four years.
Yet there are issues with such plea bargaining too. Talks between cheats and anti-doping authorities are often held in secret, and decisions appear opaque when a serious offender is let off without the public knowing why.
It is one thing being , who can help the authorities out in exchange for leniency. It is another being Johnny Nobody from a small nation who takes a stimulant without realising it and has no information to trade.
Gay certainly had enough information to offer to reduce his ban. Which means that his public utterances about being let down by someone he trusted, which have made him appear more like Mr Bean than Lance Armstrong, do not entirely ring true.
That said, Gay did voluntarily return the silver medal he won in the men's 4x100m at the London Olympics, something he did not need to do because the authorities had no evidence of his doping in 2012. So in effect his ban is two years, from June 2012 – June 2014.
Still, some will regard that one medal as a small price to pay, especially as Gay gets to compete at next year's world championships in Beijing and the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Perhaps they are right. But we accept the need for informants and amnesties in fighting crime. Why should sporting crime be any different?