The Beltline: If you’re looking for benefit of the doubt when it comes to PEDs, the last thing you want to be is a Russian approaching 40

By Elliot Worsell

IT is often true of school bullies that they were once victims of bullies themselves, meaning they are aware of both the tactics used and the prime targets. This knowledge helps them to not only ascend but redirect, with the boy bullied for having the embarrassing shoes or rucksack eager to find some other boy with an even more embarrassing pair of shoes or rucksack so he can focus the attention of his bullies on that instead. Usually, as a ploy, it works, too. Give it enough time, in fact, and the boy bullied in the first place will have forgotten that he was the original target. He will have cleansed this memory by virtue of giving the same pain to someone else.

A similar thing happens with controversy in boxing. You see it most of all whenever there is a bad decision or a mistake on the part of an official in the ring. The outrage to follow tends to last about as long as it takes for another controversy to come along and usurp it. That typically takes about a week, or a fortnight, and it is then the previous controversy, the one that for 48 hours seemed like the most heinous thing in the world, is as good as forgotten; consigned to a pile of other controversies whose path was much the same.

More recently, we have seen this approach apply to performance-enhancing drugs. Specifically, we have seen it in the context of failed performance-enhancing drug tests, these things that represent such an inconvenience for not only the boxer involved – that is, the one caught – but also their promoter and others who claim to care about the image of the sport yet only really want to make a load of money from it. In this instance, the bullied becoming the bully theory plays out like this: a boxer, once loved but now under scrutiny, fails a performance-enhancing drug test and then uses the power of their social media platform to fight the bullies by exaggerating the depths of their victimhood in an attempt to have their so-called bullies (read: boxing fans) experience a guilt which is, nine times out of ten, totally unwarranted. They do this by posting bland motivational quotes, positioning themselves at the centre of a gross miscarriage of justice, informing the world that positive drug tests don’t count, and threatening anyone who has the temerity to state facts which oppose this. Depending on their audience, too, they may even post pictures of themselves in the gym wearing next to nothing, the aim in this scenario a clear one: to extract sympathy in the most direct, blatant and shameless way possible. Keep doing this long enough and memories of the failed drug test will soon start to fade. Play to the right crowd and it becomes an irrelevance anyway.

During the wait, a sort of purgatory, the hope of any boxer who tests positive is that another boxer will come along and be punished, or at least publicly vilified, for the same transgression. This, alas, normally doesn’t take long either, because, let’s face it, it’s desperate out there; desperate in so many ways. The PED situation is desperate, but so too are the boxers caught up in PED scandals. They are so desperate, in fact, these boxers, that the failed test becomes their whole personality and very reason to exist. Indeed, in some cases, it brings these boxers the boost in profile they were hoping for all along. Beat the charges and get back in the ring and you then have all the makings of a compelling redemption arc. The motivation to scale greater heights. A dull Netflix documentary. A chapter in an autobiography ghostwritten by that one journalist who stuck by you.

Failing a drug test didn’t harm Canelo Alvarez’s popularity one bit (Getty Images)

Ultimately, to fail a drug test in boxing is not the end of the world. Wait it out long enough and you will be back in the ring in no time. You will also find there are other boxers getting caught for the same thing, at which point it is your right to turn around, direct your finger at them, and say, “Look, they’re all doing it,” or instead, “Focus on the real criminals and not the wrongly accused.” Either way, when another boxer fails a test, you will in some ways be vindicated, absolved, yesterday’s news.

This became clear in January when Artur Beterbiev was reported to have had an “atypical” finding in a performance-enhancing drug test. Not to be confused with an “adverse” finding, this irregularity merely led to further and more stringent tests before in the end he was passed both clean and fit to fight.

By then, however, news of the atypical finding had reached the team of his opponent, Callum Smith, as it should, and this led to something else as well. It led to baseless accusations primarily, which started before the fight, presumably because Beterbiev is big and scary and Russian and almost 40, and then grew wings and took off when Beterbiev, as expected, dominated and stopped Smith within seven rounds.

By that stage many people who have previously defended boxers who have failed drug tests were snidely insinuating Beterbiev was a cheat. They did so by using choice phrases like “superhuman” and stopped just short of winking whenever asked to assess his destruction of Smith. They spoke as if the idea of Beterbiev, 20-0 (20), tearing through Smith in the manner in which he did was an aberration rather than the perceived order of events. They also undermined Beterbiev’s fighting pedigree, which includes a long and glittering amateur career, plus the intensity of his training, which is there for all to see on video and, if you have ever watched a boxer during training camp, will know is not exactly “typical” workout fare.

That’s not to say Artur Beterbiev is clean, by the way. Frankly, I have no idea, and he could end up being as dirty as the rest for all I know. Yet until this is officially proven it would be wrong for anyone to make assumptions based purely on age, how he fights, and his nationality. This becomes particularly jarring, as a thought, when one considers the timing of some of these accusations and, moreover, the people responsible for making them. Because unfortunately if you have at any point in your professional career decided to stand by an athlete who has failed a PED test on account of them being a “good person” or “not that type”, and then, worse, tried to ensure they continue to compete despite knowledge of this failed test, your opinion on this subject must forever be registered as an adverse analytical finding.

Artur Beterbiev cracks Callum Smith with a right hand during their light-heavyweight fight at Videotron Centre on January 13, 2024 in Quebec City, Canada (Mathieu Belanger/Getty Images)

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