Trying to Make Sense of Freeman’s Suspension

2010 U.S. hammer champion Jake Freeman is currently serving a 1-year doping suspension.

Kibwé Johnson dominated the U.S. championships in the hammer throw yesterday, outdistancing America’s best hammer throwers by six meters. Behind him were two-time Olympian A.G. Kruger, former World Junior Champion Conor McCullough, and many other world-class throwers. But when the officials read through the throwing order at 4:20 in the afternoon, one big name was missing. Rather than getting reading to defend his title, former world championship competitor Jake Freeman was spending his time serving a one-year ban after testing positive for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive chemical found in marijuana.

This post is not a plea for Freeman’s innocence or even an attempt to get his ban overturned. There are rules, and Freeman broke them. I think Jake is a great guy, but I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the position he is in. It’s not just that he should have known better since THC is listed as a banned substance and everyone knows there is drug testing at the U.S. indoor nationals. It’s that Freeman DID know better since he has been in this situation before: He tested positive for the same substance at the same exact meet two years ago and served a 3-month ban after that offense. As a second offense, his ban was raised to one-year.

This post also isn’t advocating a legalization of marijuana or allowing the use of other banned substances.

Instead, this post is about why anti-doping policy even tests for marijuana in the first place. Or, to put it another way, what is the underlying policy of anti-doping? Marijuana provides a perfect example of the incoherence of anti-doping policy. No matter how you try to define “doping”, marijuana falls outside the spectrum. For example, marijuana is not a performance enhancer. While it may offend some people’s morals, there are already criminal laws against it here in the United States that address those concerns. Suspending an athlete just punishes them twice for the same offense. To make things even more strange, marijuana is one of the few drugs that is only tested for in competitions, instead of throughout the year in random tests. If morality or being a role model is the reason for testing, then it should be tested for year-round. Some have told me that event safety is the reason. But if that is true, then Ivan Ukhov should have been banned after trying to compete drunk in Lausanne several years ago. Instead Ukhov was issued a “stern warning” from the IAAF. A consistent policy would have given him a breathalyzer and a suspension.

The prohibited substance list issued by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is riddled with examples like this that highlight the numerous inconsistencies rampant in anti-doping. If you look at them together, you start to realize that no one sat down to create a clear policy of what should and shouldn’t be banned. Instead we get an arbitrary ad-hoc list that leaves Freeman without a good answer to the question “Why is this substance prohibited?” Anti-doping experts will often put forth their own policies, but each one fails to cover the whole system. For example:

We ban “performance enhancing” drugs. Then why is marijuana banned?

We ban “unnatural” substances. True, marijuana is does not occur naturally in the body. But then why are athletes banned from blood doping (i.e. reinjecting their own blood to boost the red cell count)? That is neither a drug nor unnatural and we already allow athletes to sleep in a pressurized tent that artificially boosts red blood cells. Testosterone also occurs naturally in the body and is banned, yet ibuprofen and numerous other substance foreign to the body are not banned.

We want to keep athletes safe. While it has been difficult to conduct long-term clinical studies on the effects of steroids, I agree that it likely has negative side effects. But is it the role of the a sports association or government to dictate what athletes should do for their health? And even then they do not make consistent decisions about health. Lets look to another sport for an example: concussions are a greater health issue in American football than steroids, but little is being done on that front. Some the NCAA currently bans restricts substances like caffeine that have proven health benefits.

The doping mindset attacks the integrity of the sport. This might be the best argument, but still fails to make the banned substance list coherent. I think many people take supplements with the same intent as taking a stimulant or a steroid: if I ingest this it will make me better. But these supplements aren’t banned. And an athlete smoking marijuana certainly isn’t lighting up with the intent that it will make him throw further.

The whole logic is circular. There are numerous other arguments I’ve heard and each one has its flaws. WADA has adopted its own definition of doping in Article 1 of the Anti-Doping Code. This definition serves as the foundation for the current global anti-doping policy. When I noticed it in the table of contents today, I immediately flipped to the correct page, only to find that their definition is the most circular of all: “Doping is defined as the occurrence of one or more of the anti-doping rule violations.”

As I said above, I’m not advocating the abolition of the anti-doping code. But if a policy is going to last another 50 years and stand up to the ever-changing technology, it needs to have a better foundation to stand on. And this is not even going into the procedural and due process issues that might arise, but maybe I can speak on that another time from a lawyer’s point of view.

9 replies
  1. Nik
    Nik says:

    Martin your post here is well articulated and brings the point home. I believe the essence of the issue lies over the benefit. As you stated in your post, “an athlete smoking marijuana certainly isn’t lighting up with the intent that it will make him throw further.” Marijuana is not a performance enhancing drug in the sport of Track and Field, and one could go as far as to say that in the throwing events, it may act as a performance diminisher.

    This may sound comical in the beginning but think about this:

    If a thrower showed up to an important track meet ( national champs / World champs / olympics ) who was High on Marijuana for the competition, would anybody in their right mind expect them to perform well? Probably not. Their ability to do well at the meet would be greatly decreased, and if they somehow still managed to get a good throw off, that just speaks to the superior skill / talent / mindset that athlete would have to possess in order to beat other national/world class athletes who are sober and focused.

    What if the Drunk Russian high jumper actually cleared that bar, would he have still received a stern warning? Obviously he needed one because he was more of a drunk than an athlete that day.

    What if they won their event while they were high? in reality they would take that throwers medal away, when honestly, they should probably give that person another medal for not only being the best — but for being the best at only Half Mast.

    If a track athlete wants to handicap themselves with Marijuana, that’s their personal business. They are exclusively punishing themselves. Having an agency suspend or ban you for hurting your chances at succeeding doesn’t make much sense.

    I understand the anti doping policies around track and field are meant to create a good image for the public and maintain the integrity of the sport. We simply can’t have high / drunk athletes wandering around track meets. But the reason isn’t because of how it would effect their performance on the track, its because of the Image of our sport as a whole.

  2. John Wheeler
    John Wheeler says:

    As you well know,a lot of athletes have anxiety problems before meets,no matter how big or small they are so marijuana does help there -but getting drunk also acomplishes that.

    Another reason is that a lot of athletes (most i’d say) always fight some kind of injury and marijuana really helps there.

    So there you have it-feeling no pain and anxiety,two good reasons why it could help performance.

    • Martin
      Martin says:

      Anxiety – In addition to alcohol, beta blockers and other medications help reduce anxiety but are not banned in track and field.

      Injuries – Pot doesn’t help injuries, it just reduces pain. That enhances performance, but not nearly as much as fixing the injury. A number of narcotic pain killers also reduce pain just as much, such as hydrocodone, but are not banned.

      I just don’t think that it is being banned for performance enhancing reasons. And if it were, then why are other equal practices not also banned. They can’t just ban everything that enhances performance…then they would not let us train. They have to draw the line somewhere, but do not do it in a consistent manner.

  3. ed burke
    ed burke says:

    Follow the money….to make sense of the doping rules….

    In 1985 I advocated “blood testing” rather than urine…. but
    those who had the “Conch” and the contract ( over $400. per)
    lobbied against saying that the Muslims …. and Russians would
    never accept it… thus….

    TE$T the urine ….. TE$T…TE$T…. x $400.= $$$$$ and who
    was the trusted Lab ??????:? duh….

  4. joe donahue
    joe donahue says:

    What a tragedy for a fine young man.He and his family are just about the ideal American family and he represents them well.While he did ‘break a prohibition’ the very essence of that prohibition is in great doubt in crime prevention circles. It is a social prohibition akin to alcohol prohibition. It encourages an illegal market which supports criminal enterprises. This criminal market, artificially induced has benefits for many. It feeds the growth and pervasiveness due to a profit motive. By its very nature,it creates and supports a market which would not exist because it is illegal. Does it have benefts? Research says yes but the nature of the illegality causes a wide result without legal standards.Criminologists have commented that police and sheriffs departments rely on the fees,court fines and associated confiscations due to MJ convictions. It is an entire industry providing wealth to the criminal and court system. It is this that prevents dencriminalization. Yes Ed Burke is right.It is the money and the refusal of power brokers to admit it is a moral enfotcement and not a generaized ethical one. There is more danger to an athlete from alcohol but it is legal. Jake got caught in a social experiment that is proving itself to be destructive to our effectivenss as a society.

  5. Jean-Joseph (Joe) Roman
    Jean-Joseph (Joe) Roman says:

    Jake or “Monsieur Jacques” as I prefer to call him, is a victim of circumstances. As a friend I feel strongly that he should have know better, after the warning of two years ago.

    As a hammer thrower and coach I too believe that the ban for the use of weed, is not logical.

    As oppose to other real enhancing substances, the Marijuana is not known as improving a physical performance. Contrary, it does slow down the reflexes.
    Marijuana causes confusion and acts contrary to what an athlete should create in the throwing circle: composure, coordination and most of all concentration.

    That being said, the question remaining is: why and how come that the Marijuana is still considered a performance “enhancement”?

    Joe Roman

  6. Liam Riley
    Liam Riley says:

    A very thoughtfully expressed piece on a important sports issue.

    At its very essence, the anti-doping code should be a moral one which has the sole purpose of providing athletes with a reasonably level playing field in sport.

    The idea of athlete safety is brought up, but this should really be a side-issue which is indirectly dealt with through the sole core aim above. This way, we don’t get into problematic situations regarding performance-enhancers which are not harmful.

    Blood doping and testosterone provide a significant boost to athletes who can afford such expensive treatments. In this way the level field is tilted beyond reasonable limits – thus there is no need for the “non-natural” argument here. I don’t know of any vitamins/supplements which provide that kind of boost.

    I think the presence of THC on the banned list is actually a liability in terms of the promotion of anti-doping practices, in terms of athletics at least.

    Athletes who turn up drunk or high can be punished in other ways, such as non-invitation to big meetings (a drunk athlete is not a money-spinner for a promoter after all).

    • Martin
      Martin says:

      That would be better, but there are also some problems with the “even playing field” rationale. First, we don’t start on an even playing field. Genetically, I just don’t have the same natural speed as Usain Bolt or Cantwell’s natural strength. Then some supplements like creative have as much of a boost as sudafed and other banned substances. Where do we draw the limit on tilting the playing field? And finally, not all athletes have access to good coaching, physio, facilities, etc. Should we ban using a new home-made weight lifting machine if only one athlete has access to it and it is guaranteed to improve anyone’s throw by 3 meters? Should the method of performance enhancement matter? If it leaves the playing field uneven, it shouldn’t really matter.


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