Sonny Webster Ban Extension
What does it take to get to the Olympics? Hard work, years of practice, and a pinch of drugs?
If you’ve been keeping tabs, you’ll know that Sonny Webster was one of 2 British athletes sent to the Rio 2016 Olympics. Competing in the old 94kg class, he tested positive positive for Ostarine – a performance enhancing drug – at the British championships.
Ostarine is an anti-catabolic drug but is often used during post-cycle therapy after steroid use. It’s notable for two reasons:
- It’s a popular weight cutting drug to help athletes make weight without losing strength
- It’s a common compound in tainted supplements – an increasing concern
Obviously, Webster leaned on number 2 and claimed foul play from supplements. This isn’t without precedent – historically, scummy supplement companies have used steroids to boost sales.
However, a full hearing and investigation couldn’t find any tainted supplements and Webster was pushed to a 4-year suspension.
This is a blatant exemplar. Webster’s ban was twice as long as Ilya Ilin – who was retroactively popped for two instances of drug use. As ever, WADA/IOC/IWF favouritism is a significant factor, though we fully support the ban.
Things just go from bad to worse for Sonny Webster, however. Despite being on the business end of a big ban, he’s had his sentence extended by another 3 years for “impeding” the original ban.
This doesn’t come from additional testing – it’s the result of hosting seminars and providing programming to other athletes while on provisional suspension. This is a rule of ban-by-association that exists to prevent banned athletes/coaches potentially tainting the conduct of others.
Makes sense, right? Not for long…
What we’re seeing with this, however, is a strong double standard. This ruling would make perfect sense, except that those who have served bans – a far more certain statement of guilt than “provisional suspension” – have hosted seminars with no repercussions.
Vasily Polovnikov is a great example. Touring the US with Ilya Ilin and Dmitry Klokov, he served a ban in 2009-11. This was a confirmed case of cheating, using three banned substances in combination.
Not only was this a 2-year ban (because he took 3 banned substances at once, rather than one substance over three tests), but there were no repercussions for his involvement with this high-profile seminar tour.
There are overlaps between local and global drug agencies, as well as the IWF itself, but this is a good example of clear treatment-disparity. However, there’s a clear correlation between an athlete’s visibility and their suspension.
We’re not here to defend Webster’s actions. The initial pop is unacceptable and there are virtues to a life-time ban for first-time offenders (since the benefits are also lifelong). Additionally, seminar-hosts had previously noted they would not be hosting due to their own rules on banned athletes.
What we do need to ask is whether we’re okay with the preferential treatment seen at different levels of strength sports.
Does an additional 3-year ban make sense to an athlete already serving twice the sentence of someone with 2 or 3 times as many positive tests? Is there a punishment attached to failed appeals? Do we expect visibility and social media presence – or even website traffic/seminar tours – to tie into an athlete’s ban?
It’s a difficult question to answer – though we’re sure the details of the case aren’t far off.
This seems interesting since Webster’s ban is the longest on record for a non-possession, non-repeat offence. Meanwhile, the lifetime ban has almost entirely disappeared even for repeat offences, with only one example since 2013.
In 2019, hosting documents on the web and providing seminars while under investigation carries a heavier toll than competing under the influence of amphetamines or testing positive while winning two Olympic games.
It’s not hard to see why there’s a sense of disenchantment with weightlifting’s anti-doping policy. From both the fans and the IOC!
All we can say so far is that you should look towards informed sport products!
Whether it’s a tainted supplement or not, Webster’s case is a great reminder that what you put in your body is your responsibility – and ignorance definitely won’t get you off the hook.