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Dope Money: Can Clawing Back Prizes And Sponsorships Curb PED Use?

The recent rash of doping scandals in the running world may lead organizations to take more proactive antidoping measures and protect themselves (and their wallets) from the fallout.

by Mary Pilon
Dec 2 2015, 5:29pm

Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/EPA

Call it a sign of the times.

The World Marathon Majors, the race series that allocates a $1 million purse to the top finishers of six marathons over a one-year season, has changed how it is distributing its prize money. Instead of the $500,000 lump sum each male and female series champion receives, now the purse will be distributed in five annual installments of $100,000.

The reason, organizers said, is so they can get their money back in the event a recipient is busted for using a performance-enhancing substance.

"When we looked at the landscape of the sport, it was another step we could take" World Marathon Majors general manager Tim Hadzima said. "We looked at changes we could control that could push the agenda of clean sport forward. We looked at it as one other thing we could do to safeguard the sport we all love."

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When the World Marathon Majors (WMM) first announced the change in prize money distribution in February, it largely went unnoticed. Since then, though, the World Anti-Doping Agency has issued a report accusing Russia of engaging in "state-sponsored" doping, a scandal that has led to an overhaul of the country's antidoping agency and at least five athletes contesting their bans from the sport. Running powerhouse nation Kenya has similarly faced accusations of lackluster testing; this week the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the world governing body for track and field, provisionally suspended three Kenyan track officials amid accusations they subverted anti-doping protocols. While the use of performance-enhancing substances is as old as organized sport itself, the recent rash of scandal may lead to more proactive measures from organizations seeking to protect themselves from the fallout.

Hadzima said he wasn't aware of anyone else following the WMM's lead yet, but the reaction thus far to the changed policy has been "extremely positive." They have yet to have to rescind funds from a winning athlete, although several marathoners who would have been vying for the $500,000 prize have faced bans, most notably Kenya's Rita Jeptoo, who won the Chicago Marathon and the Boston Marathon, both WMM events, before testing positive for EPO last fall. (Jeptoo has appealed the ban, and the WMM has stated that "until the appeals process has run its course, we are unable to confirm our women's series winner" for the 2013-14 season.)

Jeptoo won the 2014 Boston Marathon and months later tested positive for EPO. Photo by Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

In addition to changing its prize money structure, last summer the WMM also began to expand the amount of out-of-competition drug testing the organization would conduct. Out-of-competition testing, typically conducted when most athletes would be using, is often left up to a country's individual drug testing organization. Some are stronger than others. The move could also be seen as a tacit acknowledgement that, when left to their own devices, countries can't be counted on to test in a consistent, independent manner, meaning another outside group needs to take charge.

"Year-round testing is the only way to make sure the sport is doing enough testing," Hadzima said. "Race-day testing is a part of that, but we want to make sure that every athlete at the starting line has been tested, and we're still going back to that mantra of having a fair playing field."

Antidoping officials have long fought to keep up with scientific and technological innovations that drug suppliers and users employ to avoid detection, but newer methods of monitoring athletes, like biological passports and backtesting older test samples, are gaining favor and seen as more effective. It's a given in the drug testing world that doping occurs, often undetected. But by keeping samples for when the sophistication of tests catches up to doping itself, organizations like WADA can sanction athletes long after they step off the podium. More and more sports organizations, in turn, may have to face the prospect of proven dopers having won their prizes.

WADA has recommended lifetime bans for five Russian athletes, including Mariya Savinova and Ekaterina Poistogova, here at the 2012 Olympics. Photo by Kerim Okten/EPA

Already, many cases of doping busts have raised questions—sometimes in courts of law—over what, if any, sponsorship dollars or prize money can be recovered. Perhaps most notable is the example of fallen cyclist Lance Armstrong, whose sponsors, including the United States Postal Service, have sued him over his multimillion dollar deals.

However, such attempts to seek recourse after the fact don't guarantee the desired outcome for these organizations, which is why the WMM is making a proactive move. Think of it as the difference between drawing up a detailed prenuptial agreement versus a divorce. Hopefully, things won't go sour—but if they do, it's clear who will get the house. The International Olympic Committee reserves the right to seize medals from athletes who are found to be using PEDs. But staggered prize money, or front-end contracting, from sponsors or prize-awarding organizations, still remains new.

"This is a novel approach at risk mitigation, but one I suspect that will be copied," Robert A. Boland, Director of the Masters in Sports Administration program at Ohio University, said. By paying out money in installments, the strategy legally functions like a 'deed of gift' or a contract with a clawback, similar to what the IOC has used with medals, he said.

Drafting up agreements that allow for sponsorship deals to individual athletes to be paid out in installments is "a win on all levels for a sponsor," Boland said. "It also, in theory, allows for longer sponsorship engagement, which is beneficial for any sport or event."

In addition to staggering payouts, some organizations may be considering additional measures like imposing fines or sanctions to athletes found to be using banned substances, said Roger Pielke, Jr., a political science professor at the University of Colorado who has researched antidoping protocols. As retroactive drug testing gains more favor, redrawing the terms of payouts, like the World Marathon Majors has done, provides another deterrent for athletes not to use.

"What is liability for breaking the rules?" Pielke said. "Surely sporting organizations could be doing a lot more like this. Sponsors haven't been out in front and they never have been. You have to have an inducement to behave a different way. "