Is our current form of hyper-competitive sport transgressive of fair play? Art-Of-2

We’re getting tougher on doping cheats – but why?

What’s the point of anti-doping? And what’s the point of sport in the early 21st century? Is the current system of anti-doping good for our kids, our athletes and is it good for sport? Is it even good for society? These are not easy questions to answer – but surely they’re not beyond us.

Penal pursuits

In the midst of the current doping scandal, the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) has announced the introduction of the landmark rule to make it mandatory for all future Australian Olympians to sign a statutory declaration about doping.

The refusal to do so, or an admission of having taken performance enhancing drugs, would make athletes ineligible for team inclusion. Those found to have made inaccurate representation in the statutory declaration face up to five years in jail.

This measure is yet another designed to segregate all perceived impure elements from the ranks of Australian sport.

The AOC move follows the recommendations of Justice Wood and his inquiry into the governance of Australian cycling and the banishment from that sport of former cyclists turned officials, Stephen Hodge and Matthew White after their admissions that they had doped in the past.

On February 6, the Commonwealth introduced the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority Amendment Bill 2013. The introduction of the Bill will potentially see ASADA being given new and unprecedented powers including the imposition of civil penalties and being able to compel the handing over of documents and the giving of evidence, not only from athletes and those directly involved in sport, but presumably from other stakeholders such as academic researchers who explore athletes’ lived experiences in elite sport.

It’s easy to speculate – based on one of the author of this paper’s unpublished research – that the Bill is at least in part a response to the refusal of some cyclists to cooperate with ASADA given the repercussions of them speaking about their sporting careers.

Without some protection for such potential witnesses many athletes continue to equate confessing or cooperating with ASADA as their own career and personal suicide.

Lipstick on a pig

Simply getting “tough” on the “cheats” through such measures has been criticised by WADA President John Fahey as having the result of only reinforcing the cone of silence that pervades sport and its administration.

Both Fahey and his director-general David Howman have made numerous recent statements that signal WADA’s uneasiness with the blind pursuit of zero tolerance embarked on by governments and sporting administrators.

The signal is that WADA feels that such measures will be in the longer term counterproductive.

In the course of their separate research experiences, both authors of this article are convinced that heavy-handed zero tolerance policies at the elite level simply pushes experimental use of performance-enhancing substances into the sub elite level, where younger athletes prepare themselves prior to encountering elite anti-doping testing regimes.

A question that needs to be asked is whether we really want our sub-elite and junior sports to become laboratories for professional athlete preparation.

The problem with anti-doping is that it is another “anti”; another war on something that appears to be more about protecting commercial and national investments and reputation than it does protecting the athletes’ health.

The focus thus far has mainly been on individual fault-finding. But from our perspective it is not about individual “cheats”; what is in issue is the entire sporting system and its links to business and government (and even organised crime).

If there is one lesson we can learn from recent events – whether it be the Armstrong investigation, the Spanish Operacion Puerto trial or the Australian Crime Commission public report – it’s that there are systemic and institutional drivers of doping practice.

Former cyclist and team manger Jonathan Vaughters has said in respect of his sport that everyone involved is to blame for the problem, not just individuals such as Armstrong.

Make-up or make-over

Sport and games have not always been what we know today. The etymology of the word sport points us towards ideas of “pleasure” and “diversion”.

Pre-modern European folk games were based around an ethic that is very different from today’s hyper competitive sport – rather than win at all costs many of these games operated on the principle of not leaving anybody behind.

Sport as an ideal of human pursuit, and an economic activity, is very much a modern-day phenomenon such that sport has become a primary mechanism for governance of society in a global neo-liberal world.

Anti-doping has replaced the previous emphasis on the ethics of amateur sport. Research conducted by one of the authors of this paper revealed widespread cynicism from cyclists who had not bought the line that anti-doping was either about fair play or about their health.

In circumstances in which professional sport is an industry and athletes are commodities, the health and welfare of the athlete should be the focus of anti-doping. There are too many cases of athletes having adverse health effects or even having died as a result of doping practices gone wrong.

It is because of sport’s economic and symbolic role that our current form of hyper-competitive sport, supported by business and government, is by its very nature transgressive of fair play.

We should forget the intangible and rhetorical claims about preserving the integrity of sport and protecting a romanticised image of sport that attract sponsors.

The AOC statutory declarations and the ASADA Bill are simply more measures to get tough on the cheats. But they are merely symptomatic solutions that will do nothing to ensure athlete health and welfare or assist in curbing the systemic drivers of doping in sport; nor are they measures that might address the underlying pathology inherent in modern sport.

Whether sport mirrors society or today’s society mirrors sport, we believe that some of the questions we should be asking include:

  • What is the point of sport in the early 21st century?
  • What do we want the point of sport to be in the future?

It is only when we start to ask ourselves whether our past ideals should define our future goals that we can begin to more clearly articulate the point of anti-doping. In reflecting on issues beyond the superficial, we remind ourselves that in the end the question is about what type of society we want.