Members of the IAAF, athletics' governing body, today backed their leadership and voted in favour of reintroducing four-year bans for first-time drug offenders, as the sport battles to restore order and credibility in the wake of a series of damaging doping cases.
The issue was put to a full vote of the IAAF membership during its congress in Moscow, where the World Championships begin on Saturday.
The four-year bans will be effective as of January 1, 2015.
Following representation from several leading track and field stars, the IAAF Council had earlier today approved by acclamation "a return to four-year sanctions for serious doping offences," noting that it will "not stint in its resolve to do everything in our power to eradicate cheating."
It added: "The IAAF has an ethical obligation to the overwhelming majority of athletes and officials who believe in clean sport. As a leader in this fight the IAAF has built and delivers a programme that is well resourced, far reaching, sophisticated and increasingly able to detect and remove from the sport those who breach our anti-doping rules."
Since 1997, the IAAF has complied with the World Anti-Doping Agency Code, and handed out two-year bans to first-time offenders. That has meant an athlete could serve his or her suspension without missing an Olympic Games, and as a result many believe the punishment does not fit the crime of bringing the sport into disrepute.
Speaking before today's vote, IAAF general secretary Essar Gabriel said: "When the WADA code was introduced we dropped to two [years] as something of a compromise in order to fit in and to ensure countries would police the problem. So for us it's back to the future... 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."
IAAF vice-presidents Sergey Bubka and Sebastian Coe have in recent weeks championed a return to four-year sanctions.
The move by the IAAF puts pressure on revisions to the new WADA Code, which are presently under way. The new code will be unveiled at the WADA conference in Johannesburg, South Africa in November, and will come into force on January 1, 2015.
Some other federations are content with two-year bans, and as a result athletics risks being marginalised.
Abby Hoffman, IAAF council member, told a news conference in Moscow yesterday: "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."
Several high-profile athletes will miss this month's World Championships because of failed drugs tests, most notably sprinters Tyson Gay of USA and Asafa Powell of Jamaica.
Powell, the former 100 metres world record holder, was one of several Jamaican track and field athletes to test positive for a banned substance at June’s Jamaican championships, with others including female sprinters Sherone Simpson and Veronica Campbell-Brown, and discus throwers Travis Smikle and Allison Randall.
Earlier this week, Turkey announced another 31 positive doping tests, following several earlier in the year, while host nation Russia currently has more than 40 athletes suspended for doping offences.