Attempts to detect and punish steroid cheats at the Olympic Games in London this summer could be hindered by the United Kingdom's lax drug laws.
With the event now less than four months away the British government has confirmed it will not follow the example set by previous host nations in tightening regulations to make bringing steroids into the country a criminal offense.
In the U.K. it is not even an offense for an athlete to consume steroids, with the political authorities preferring to leave it up to the sports world's anti-doping bodies to act and administer sanctions.
"It is not a criminal offense for personal consumption for athletes in this country," said a spokesman for Olympics minister Hugh Robertson. "But they will be dealt with under anti-doping law if they are caught with drugs in their system."
This approach differs from the tougher stance adopted by nations such as Australia, Canada, China and Italy, which all clamped down on drug regulation before they took their turns as Olympic host.
In advance of the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010, Canada tightened its Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, and certain offenses related to anabolic steroids now carry penalties of up to 18 months in prison. Ahead of the Sydney Olympics in 2000, Australia passed legislation that entrenched the import and trafficking of steroids as a crime just as serious as other forms of narcotics.
China took a similarly tough stance ahead of the 2008 Beijing Games, enacting a wide range of penalties beyond those offered under sports law.
It may be that Britain has been deterred by the fact that European Union law can supersede domestic law. If a U.K. law conflicts directly with an EU directive,the European legislation takes precedence. However, that did not stop the Italian government from taking legal steps before the Torino Winter Games in 2006 to bring steroids under the umbrella of its banned drugs policy.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) rarely comments on the decisions and laws of individual governments, although it is both common sense and widely accepted that the more stringent national laws on drug use are, the easier the agency's job becomes.
This becomes particularly pertinent when it comes to international events such as an Olympics, where vast numbers of athletes from around the world descend upon one city.
That reality makes the stance of the UK's Conservative Party-led government all the more puzzling. In general the incumbent government, especially Robertson in his ministerial role, is strongly outspoken against the use of drugs in sports.
Robertson recently called for stricter punishments and bans for detected drug cheats. "We are making a clear pitch for tougher sentences and urging the need for a universal sentencing policy," he told the Daily Telegraph. "We would like to see at least four-year [bans], if not longer than that."
WADA currently recommends two-year bans for athletes found guilty of using steroids or human growth hormone.
Those words from an official figure sound to the uninitiated like positive action, yet in actuality the U.K. government has wasted the opportunity to take serious steps , while putting the onus for regulation on sports' own anti-doping channels.
British anti-doping chiefs publicly have voiced their desire that customs officials can "tip us off" if any athletes are found with steroids when they enter the country, allowing for targeted tests to be administered.
Eighteen athletes were disqualified as a result of tests administered at Beijing, with one positive test at both Torino and Vancouver.
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