Today the news broke from USADA that the 2022 decathlon world leader, Garrett Scantling, was provisionally suspended due to whereabouts failures, explaining his absence from the USA World Championships team announced several weeks ago.
Every elite athlete, like any professional in any walk of life, has a responsibility to abide by the rules. The rules are there to protect athletes and to protect the integrity of the sport.
In its recent history, decathlon has enjoyed a reputation relatively free of drugs issues. The two most notable instances over the last 15 years have been Aleksandr Pogorelov of Russia and Larbi Bourrada of Algeria. The retired Pogorelov was retrospectively stripped of results in 2008 and 2009 after a retest of a sample from the 2008 Olympics showed the presence of turinabol. His world bronze medal from 2009 was belatedly reallocated to a young Oleksiy Kasyanov. Bourrada tested positive for Stanozol in Ratingen in 2012, and was banned for two years, after which he returned to competition.
The heptathlon has had a more chequered history, with multiple profile drugs bans in the 2000s, most notoriously at the London 2012 Olympics.
While Pogorelov and Bourrada both had positive tests, that is not the case for Scantling. Whereabouts violations do not in themselves mean that an athlete has succumbed to the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). That’s an important distinction.
But in the shadows of the headlines screaming drugs, uncertainty breeds doubt, and doubt breeds cynicism. Were missed tests genuine oversights, a consequence of a hectic schedule and a distracted mind? Or – as reported in the recent case of Blessing Okagbare – were they carefully choreographed diversions, designed to evade the testers at tactical moments?
To the public, where the truth lies on that spectrum is sadly all too often irrelevant. The seed of doubt has been sown, their confidence in the authenticity of what they see on the track and the field damaged, perhaps irreparably. To the media, the hint of a drugs scandal will pull far more readers to their pages than any exploits in a stadium.
Athletes are human, and that is why there are three strikes, to account for the unpredictability of life. We have yet to learn the details, but if Scantling has indeed breached those rules, then it’s right that there are consequences, no matter how painful for him, and for the rest of us.
What comes next is important.
Accountability, humility and remorse can reframe a regrettable incident into a learning experience, and ensure that lessons are paid forward to young athletes looking on. Deflection, defiance and arrogance simply deepen the doubts and magnify the harm. It is some consolation that Garrett’s initial position seems to be in the space of the former.
Decathlon is the greatest of all the track and field events, and produces the greatest athletes in the world. It is a discipline steeped in comradeship and respect, and promotes values that serve us well in life, as well as in sport.
The World Championships decathlon this weekend will be missing a talented athlete in the field, but that is the consequence and we need to accept it. The 24 men competing deserve our full attention.