Professional athletes are role-models. They have a responsibility to set a positive example to all of their followers, many of whom are young and consider them an inspiration. If an athlete is found to have cheated, consequences must follow. Otherwise, future athletes will see the lack of punishment and consider it an acceptable risk to cheat in their own careers. Thus, continuing the cycle of cheating within sport and ruining any credibility.

So what is an adequate punishment for athletes who cheat?

One option is to provide them with a fine or another form of financial loss. This consequence fails to change any athlete’s behaviour. Income from playing sport is no longer just wages from their respective team, but sponsorships, advertisement campaigns and brand deals. Any form of fine doesn’t change anything for the player regarding their income, as they have many other avenues to earn money. Especially for elite athletes, the threat of losing some money is a risk many would take, as its overall impact is minimal. Thus, financial consequences for cheating in sport is not a viable consequence.

The two options which we are left with are short-term bans or lifetime bans.

Short-term bans, I believe, are sufficient for first-time offenders. If an athlete has had an accident or made a severe misjudgement, a short ban should be adequate punishment to encourage the rehabilitation of the athlete regarding their cheating behaviour and sends a message to young individuals about the importance of not cheating. Short-term bans such as the bans to Australian Cricket team members: David Warner, Steve Smith and Cameron Bancroft, allowing time for them to recover and sent a strong message about the punishment for cheating.

However, I believe that lifetime bans in certain sports must be considered. For athletes who have been found guilty of cheating multiple times, there is no excuse. It demonstrates that the misbehaviour was a conscious decision by the athlete to extend their own ability, at the cost of other athletes who could have spent decades training for a particular sporting moment. Continuing to allow athletes who have been found guilty of cheating multiple times highlights to the spectators and broader community that even if you cheat, you will still be able to compete. 

A clear example of the need for lifetime bans is illustrated through 100m athlete Justin Gatlin. Gatlin was found guilty of doping twice, and his team were reported offering drug-enhancement services to other athletes. Olympic gold medallist, Darren Campbell, responded to the situation by stating, “Why are these people allowed to stay in the sport? The only way we are going to be able to move forward as a sport and create clarity is if they are no longer involved”.

However, imposing lifetime bans is incredibly tricky and would require a complete cultural and structural change by sporting associations. This is unlikely going to be the case for many years, so we must continue to enforce short-term bans, but provide the convicted athletes with means of rehabilitation and assistance to limit the possibility of future cheating. This message should also be presented at all levels, such as in schools, that although cheating can be the easy option, the punishment is severe.

Dealing with athletes who cheat is a sensitive and challenging issue. The public and media backlash can be extreme and make living unbearable. For this reason, we need to ensure that athletes are provided with the opportunity to learn from their mistakes, but consequences still need to be present to act as a deterrent to other athletes.

Sport has a unique ability to draw together people from different races, religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation in support of one common goal. Let’s not ruin that spectacle.

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