Menu Close

Athletics doping report should spark radical rethink on drugs in sport

Feet to the fire. Is athletics going the way of cycling? Reuters/Kevin Coombs

It’s hard to overplay the importance of the damning report from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) that has presented evidence of widespread and systematic doping – particularly in Russia, which it recommends should be suspended from competition. The investigation has provided world sport with a long-overdue and historically significant moment of truth. The global response to this scandal could indelibly shape the nature of sport.

In a press conference to launch the report, Dick Pound, the former WADA president who has spent nearly a year investigating allegations of widespread doping, said investigators had found evidence of “cover-ups, destruction of samples, payment of money to conceal doping tests”.

The investigation followed a documentary aired on German television in December 2014: Top Secret Doping: How Russia makes its Winners, which alleged the existence of a “sophisticated and well-established system of state-sponsored doping” within the governing body for the sport of athletics in Russia.

In addition to Russia, Kenya, where several top athletes have failed doping cases, has also been seen as a serious problem. Yet, at present, WADA has little power of influence where groups within a country – especially state agencies – collaborate to protect doping or turn a blind eye.

It is easy for athletes to be warned of the testers coming to visit, or as WADA alleges may have happened in Russia, laboratories and officials colluding to resist anti-doping measures. One can imagine that the desire to protect your best athletes – and to win medals – might supersede thoughts of good ethical behaviour when nobody benefits from a doping bust.

Coming clean

What can be done in such circumstances? The current approach is to measure the anti-doping system against criteria relating to the World Anti-Doping Code. But that is a bureaucratic exercise, not the sort of micro-management that would be necessary to ensure standards are upheld. WADA does not have the scope of power or resources to ensure that all countries and all sports are “clean”.

Signature move: even doping control can get star struck. fotofreund, CC BY-NC-ND

However, what makes this scandal distinctive is that the sport’s governing body – The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) – is also under scrutiny. The leaked blood data information in August this year showed potential doping cases that were not investigated thoroughly enough. A recent revelation of alleged extortion and cover-ups has also drawn in Lord Coe’s predecessor as head of the IAAF, Senegalese former long-jumper, Lamine Diack. The investigations centre around allegations that the some of the leaders of world athletics, much like some of cycling’s former leaders, are seen as either passively accepting a doping culture or actively benefiting from it.

WADA places a great deal of trust in what it calls the anti-doping community stakeholders. Yet, much like a country which wants to see its athletes succeed, an international governing body does not want its reputation rocked by doping cases. It is a system which means it is potentially not in the interest of the sport’s governing body to expose the cheats, at least not in the short term.

The question is whether the current path is the right one – simply requesting more resources – or if the whole situation needs to be rethought.

New strategies

If we simply wanted to boost the resources devoted to combating doping, then the first step should involve increasing WADA’s authority and reach in order to ensure that athletes are tested more often and any dopers are more likely to be caught. But this can’t just be a strategy for one or two countries, it would have to be rolled out globally. New technologies such as the biological passport or testing DNA samples could potentially be implemented.

Politically, WADA would need all governments to offer support and finance, which for many countries is a real challenge. It would need sports organisations to be genuine cheerleaders for the ethics of anti-doping, even if it tarnishes their image and some of their top performers get sanctioned.

This amounts to an omnipresence of doping control – and omnipotence of WADA, which is, frankly, an unlikely scenario. But if were to go for a wholesale rethink, which elements should be considered?

Health and efficiency

The ambitions of anti-doping are usually stated as clean sport or drug-free sport. This is an anachronism in a world of technology and supplements, a far cry from the first IAAF ruling against artificial methods issued in 1928. The idea of a natural athlete is inconceivable, so a new definition of “clean” might be developed that emphasises health rather than trying to limit performance enhancement.

The three criteria underpinning the rules – protecting the health of the athlete, protecting the level playing field, and promoting the spirit of sport – could be rewritten to reflect the experiences of today’s athletes, not some imaginary idealisation of a sporting utopia.

A new regulatory agency might be another step forward. At the moment, WADA is the rule-maker and police officer; it publishes the bible of anti-doping (the World Anti-Doping Code) which gets reviewed every few years. An external auditor could assess gaps in the system where risks are highest and provide short-term solutions. This might also facilitate the sanctioning of sports leaders more readily than is allowed for under the current rules.

On your marks. Picking a lane for the road ahead. tableatny, CC BY

Athletes could be seen a part of the solution, not just treated as potential dopers. Stories of doping in Olympic track and field have been circulating for years and many in the sport are not surprised by recent events. There should be methods in place, not simply for whistleblowing, but for the systematic engagement of all athletes in the process of building sustainable anti-doping cultures.

Lastly, academic critics should be listened to. A recent conference of the International Network of Doping Research highlighted the wide range of unintended consequences such as the sanctioning of innocent athletes, exaggerated health fears, regulation of recreational drugs, false positives and excessive surveillance. These are genuine concerns, but anti-doping leaders seem averse to discussions which shine unfavourable light on their strategies and actions.

This debate has become about good versus evil, clean as opposed to dirty, moral versus immoral. It is a world where any loosening of restrictions is seen as opening the doors to doping. We need to move to a more balanced approach to this problem, in which listening to informed criticism might actually strengthen policy – or at least make it more achievable, rational and humanistic. And if at the 2020 Olympics the crowds are cheering a gold medallist who has openly and safely used performance-enhancing treatments under regulation from a new global body, it might just not be the end of the world. That would, of course, take a radical shift in public expectations of athletes and in our sense of what is acceptable in sport.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 183,900 academics and researchers from 4,966 institutions.

Register now