Want to Stop Doping? Look at The Agents.
On Tuesday, Russian marathon runner Tatyana Aryasova was stripped of her 2011 Tokoyo Marathon title after she returned a positive test for a banned drug, hydroxyethyl starch, that is commonly used to mask doping in endurance athletes.
The news broke on Japan Running News, where Brett Larner noted that Aryasova is represented by New York-based agent Andrey Baranov. Baranov represents more than a dozen top female marathoners, including Chicago and London marathon champion Liliya Shobukhova, a favorite at the upcoming London Olympics. He also represents Lyubov Denisova, a marathoner who tested positive for elevated testosterone levels in 2007.
I'm not aware of any evidence that Baranov sanctioned or knew about either Aryasova's or Denisova's drug use, but I certainly find the association troubling. In part, that's because doping among Russian endurance athletes appears to be widespread: seven Russian women, including world champion middle-distance runners Yelena Soboleva and Tatyana Tomashova, were banned on the eve of the 2008 Olympics for tampering with their urine samples (they tried to turn in someone else's piss); two-time Comrades Marathon winner and former Russian national record holder Leonid Shvetsov was implicated in supplying athletes with EPO in Albuquerque, New Mexico in the early 2000s, and the Russian Athletics Federation has been widely criticized for failing to operate an effective drug-testing regime.
There has long been suspicion that the drug problem in track and field and road running is partly institutional, and that the athletes who get away with doping do so with the help of their agents and coaches. Outside of the United States, the agent-coach roles are often mixed, with agents negotiating sponsor contracts and race appearances as well as writing workouts and setting up training camps, which means they're intimately engaged at every step of a runner's development. And there is often a direct relationship between how well an athlete performs and how much money an agent makes, since agents are paid a percentage of both their athletes' endorsement contracts and their prize-money winnings.
In 2007, the Association of Athletics Managers, a consortium of agents who represent a number of high-profile runners, agreed not to work with any athlete who serves a two-year ban for doping. (That should mean that AAM member and super agent Ray Flynn will permanently end his relationship with Irish runner Martin Fagan, who admitted to using EPO last week.) Baranov does not belong to the AAM.
But even agents like Flynn who agree to AAM rules aren't really at risk. Officials at WADA or the IAAF would need strong evidence that an agent was involved in buying or administering drugs to levy a suspension. Sometimes this makes sense—Ray Flynn doesn't appear to have had anything to do with Fagan's EPO positive—and sometimes it means the consequences of helping an athlete to dope are nil.
On the other hand, if races refuse to do business with agents like Baranov who continue to work with dopers, it would put enormous pressure on agents to find honest runners. And for the most part, that pressure does not currently exist.