In the late 1990s and early 2000s American sprinter Marion Jones lit up the screens across the world with her electrifying track performance and infectious smile. She went on to become the first woman to win five athletics medals at a single Olympics in 2000 when she bagged gold medals in the 100 and 200 metres and 4x400m relay and bronzes in long jump and 4x100m relay.
It was not until 2007 that she came clean and pleaded guilty to two felonies in connection with a steroid investigation, which cost her the five medals she won in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. She was later sentenced to six months in prison for lying about using steroids.
Back home, track and field enthusiasts were stunned when one of Kenya’s most outstanding runners, former Olympic and three-time world 1500m champion, Asbel Kiprop, was handed a four-year doping ban for ingesting the blood-boosting drug Erythropoietin.
His ban was followed by various unsavoury online videos and stories which clearly depicted a man who was trying to come to terms with the stigma associated with the consequence of the anti-doping rule violation.
These two cases highlight the tribulations that many athletes face after successful being sanctioned for doping. It all starts with the negative media coverage, local and international, that follows after sanctions are made public. Then there is the stigma, with fellow athletes and other support personnel, shunning the individual. The worst is the shame that befalls the family, and especially children, where tags are labelled.
Incidentally, most of these athletes disappear from our eyes and minds under a cloud of shame as fast they are introduced to us through their record-shattering exploits. No media house ever follows up to catch up with them once they start serving their bans as focus suddenly shifts to new and upcoming ones who are more agile and promise even better exploits.
Truth is, the burden associated with serving a doping ban is momentous and can easily lead to not only drug addiction but near suicidal thoughts and actions. Most countries, ours included, lack the necessary support structures to handle such athletes and to provide a platform for their reintegration back to sport or even society during and after serving their bans.
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Justin Gatlin, an American sprinter who has served two doping bans, said that he expects future generations will look at him in a less judgmental fashion. He is quoted as famously having quipped “I should not be called two-times drug cheat despite two bans”.
As Kenya intensifies anti-doping efforts and being a hotbed of sporting talent, there is a genuine need to urgently find ways of handling drug cheats. This could even be by way of establishing mental health support programmes for the sanctioned athletes, their close family members and confidants. These services should also be extended to communities from which the athletes originate. Additionally, policymakers could put up mental wellness centres for athletes in areas zoned out as being the sources of athletes from all disciplines.
Mr Mwangi is Manager, Corporate Communications, Nacada