It is one of the most punitive rules in international sports.
Commit a doping offense that merits a suspension of three months or more and forget running the New York City Marathon as a professional. One transgression, whether it involves mistakenly taking cold medicine with a banned substance or intentionally injecting human growth hormone, garners a lifetime ban from the world’s biggest marathon and every other race that New York Road Runners organizes.
Clean athletes love the rule. So do the race organizers, who grew tired of worrying that they were paying appearance fees and prize money to runners they suspected of using performance enhancing drugs.
There is just one problem with the policy. Some of the world’s leading antidoping officials say it violates one of the central tenets of their rules, one that the highest court in sports affirmed in a bizarre 2010 case involving an Olympic champion who took a supplement that claimed to boost sexual performance. He faced an Olympic ban that stretched beyond the one doping authorities gave him.
The court ruled that organizers of major international sports events cannot hit athletes with two penalties for the same infraction. After serving a suspension, athletes have a right to compete in whatever competition they qualify for, even if they aren’t entitled to appearance fees and race expenses.
“You can’t move the goal posts on increasing the scope of the sanction in the middle of the game,” Travis Tygart, chief executive of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, said in an interview earlier this week.
Tygart, the driving force behind Lance Armstrong’s doping ban, is a tireless advocate for stringent doping penalties but understands the need for athletes to be able to resume their careers after they have served their punishment.
“When WADA sets the rules, they are what they are,” Tygart said, referring to the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Except when they are not.
When it comes to antidoping policy and the alphabet soup of governing bodies that oversee world sport, it’s never quite as simple as “the rules are the rules.” In this case, the conflict has another awkward component.
The policy of the New York City Marathon and its parent organization came under scrutiny in recent days because Nnenna Lynch, the woman who New York Road Runners has named as their next chairwoman, failed a doping test in 1996.
Lynch served a three-month suspension, then later represented the United States at the world cross-country championships. Later, she entered real-estate development and politics, serving as an adviser to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York for six years, and joined the board of the New York Road Runners. In June, the organization tapped her to chair that board beginning in June 2023.
During her time working with New York Road Runners, Lynch never disclosed that she had failed a drug test and served a three-month suspension. Lynch tested positive for pseudoephedrine, a nasal decongestant that is also a banned stimulant. The incoming leader of the organization that stages the world’s largest marathon would be ineligible to compete in any race put on by New York Road Runners. Lynch also would not be able to compete in the other five races — Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin and Chicago — that make up the World Marathon Majors series, the most competitive and lucrative marathons.
Lynch has declined to comment and refused multiple interview requests since The New York Times first informed leaders of the running organization nearly two weeks ago about her failed drug test.
The board is expected to discuss the matter at some after this weekend’s marathon, choosing not to have the question disrupt its busiest and most important week of the year.
In a statement last week, the organization said it was “reviewing this new information regarding the recently named future chair of the N.Y.R.R. Board,” confirming that Lynch had not disclosed the failed test and suspension.
On Wednesday, executives of the organization defended their near-zero-tolerance policy, arguing that it made athletes more comfortable because for a long time there was concern that doping suspensions were too short. Kerin Hempel, the organization’s acting chief executive, said athletes “want to see that they have a clean field.”
Hempel and officials with the World Marathon Majors have also delved into the arcana of sports and doping laws to assert their rights to let whomever they want into their races. They say that as invitational races, they can control the small professional fields that usually have a separate start from the general public, for whatever reasons they choose. In addition, they say that since they don’t physically sign the WADA Antidoping Code, they don’t have to abide by it.
Tygart and others say that isn’t quite so. All of the major marathons are sanctioned by both their national athletics federations and World Athletics, the world governing body for running. Those organizations are signatories to the WADA code, and every event they sanction is supposed to follow the regulations.
“As far as the World Athletics rules are concerned, athletes are eligible to compete once they have completed their doping sanction,” said Brett Clothier, head of the Athletics Integrity Unit, which oversees doping enforcement for World Athletics, though he added that a race’s entry conditions or criteria are a matter for the race organizers.
Still, having this regulation on the books appears to be a no-no, or at least it has been since 2011.
That year, the Court of Arbitration for Sport, based in Switzerland, considered the case of LaShawn Merritt, who won a gold medal in the 400 meters at the 2008 Beijing Games. He was later suspended from competition for 21 months after testing positive for a steroid found in a male-enhancement product he purchased at a 7-Eleven.
The International Olympic Committee had a rule that barred athletes who had served a doping suspension of six months or longer from competing in the next Olympics, even if they had completed their original suspension.
The court called the I.O.C.’s rule “invalid and unenforceable” and said it violated the statutes of WADA, which was created to bring about uniform handling of cases involving banned substances.
So why does the rule still exist? Because no athlete has ever challenged it.
New York Road Runners executives said they plan to reconsider it in the coming months.
“After the marathon, we’re going to get with the legal department to go over it,” said Ted Metellus, the race director for the New York City Marathon. “We want to make sure the rules we have in place are clear and considered.”
And also, perhaps, allow a new board chairwoman to compete in the race she is ostensibly in charge of.
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