Athletics is set to reintroduce four-year doping bans even though the move risks alienating the sport from the world anti-doping authority (WADA), officials said on Wednesday on the eve of the world championships.
The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) will vote on Thursday to set in motion a return to four-year bans for first offenders, following representations from leading former athletes and in the wake of a series of damaging doping cases.
"They will vote tomorrow," Britain's marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe, long an outspoken critic of doping and now a member of the IAAF's athlete's commission told journalists at a briefing in Moscow.
"Unfortunately, legally, there can't be lifetime bans but this is a step in the right direction."
Doping is the subject on everyone's lips ahead of the August 10-18 championships following a series of high-profile recent positive tests, notably leading sprinters American Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell of Jamaica.
Earlier this week Turkey announced another 31 postive tests, following several earlier in the year, while host nation Russia currently has more than 40 athletes suspended for doping offences.
Current rules restrict the IAAF to handing out two-year bans to first-time offenders, meaning that many athletes can serve their suspensions without missing an Olympic Games.
IAAF general secretary Essar Gabriel confirmed that the organisation was committed to lengthening the ban having been forced to reduce it to two years in 1995.
"When the WADA code was introduced we dropped to two as something of a compromise in order to fit in and to ensure countries would police the problem," he said.
"So for us it's back to the future and hopefully the mandate will be given to the council.
"It's not just about the four-year ban, there are other things in there, particularly to do with entourage - punishing the people behind the doping."
Former 200metres world champion Frankie Fredericks, now chairman of the athletes' commission, is another who spent most of his career racing alongside dopers and he said that the message from everyone involved in the sport was that a two-year ban was no deterrent.
"We had to cut from four to two to get Governments on board but we've realised that's not enough in our sport," he said.
"We would like to have life bans but the new compromise is four years."
However, long-standing IAAF council member and former 800metres Olympian Abby Hoffman warned that extending the range of punishments would not be straightforward.
"A four-year ban is not a slam dunk," the Canadian said.
"When the WADA conference takes place in Johannesburg in November the discussion will involve very serious caveats because of the pressure that comes from other federations who do not want to expose their athletes to unequivocal four-year bans.
"Areas such as "intentionality" will have to be taken into account to levy a four-year ban so I'd say there's a lot to be done between now and November and beyond to ensure we don't have a public relations four-year ban that in reality ends up being considerably less.
"But if other organisations and international sports bodies don't want tougher sanctions then we need to make sure that space is carved out in the anti-doping campaign for athletics to impose the bans that we know our athletes and our members want.
"We need to make that stick, even if it means going down a bit of an independent road."
Image: Essar Gabriel
Photograph: Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images