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“It’s time to remodel our drugs in sport controls in order to get a proper balance …”

Bitter pill: have drug bans in Australian sport gone too far?

Lance Armstrong is the flavour of the month when it comes to doping and anti-doping discussions at the moment, but closer to home there are some real and pertinent issues to debate.

Australian government ministers and sport officials have always taken a strong position on drug use in sport, with a zero-tolerance approach front and centre. But things, as they now stand, may have gone just a little bit too far.

In the 1980s the main concern was about the unregulated use of stimulants and anabolic steroids. And by the end of the 1990s illicit drugs were added to the list of banned substances, although the bans were confined to in-competition, and not out-of-competition use.

By the mid-2000s, there were demands to make illicit drug use an offence all year round, in line with the stance on performance-enhancing drugs. And now we are faced with the prospect of sport officials controlling prescription drug use by telling athletes and their medical advisors what they should do to manage anxiety, over-arousal and sleeplessness.

In 2007, having confirmed the government’s commitment to the ban of performance-enhancing drugs, the Minister for the Arts and Sports, George Brandis, launched an illicit drugs in sport policy (IDSP), which contained “a series of important new measures”, which he thought would take drug controls to a “new level” in the government’s fight against drugs in sport.

The IDSP preamble also made it clear that this new illicit drug-use policy, which was to be administered by the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA), would include drug testing outside periods of athletic competition.

This meant that players could be sanctioned for using an illicit drug at any time of day or night, and at any time of the year.

The scope of the policy was unprecedented, and national sport organisations were invited to adopt an out-of-competition illicit drug testing regime. What’s more, the government was prepared to spend more than A$20m to make the policy work.

A “tough on drugs in sport” stance was vital, the policy document stated, to “help restore the status of sports men and women as positive role models for all Australians”.

Although the Brandis policy initiative was never implemented, because the Government lost the following election, the “tough on drugs in sport” mantra is still at play. It reached its zenith in July this year, in the lead up to the London Olympic Games.

Athlete biological passport

First, ASADA launched the Athlete Biological Passport (ABP) program, an electronic record of multiple blood samples taken from an athlete over a period of time.

According to ASADA, ABP would allow officials to build profiles that would monitor changes in the athletes’ blood chemistry, and thus be especially useful in tracking athletes who increased their red blood cell count by illegal transfusion or erythropoietin (EPO) use.

The ABP system had been employed overseas since 2009 and, according to ASADA chief executive, Aurora Andruska, Australia’s adoption of the measure would ensure our Olympic athletes were covered by the best-available drug detection science.

Andruska confidently asserted that “we are across the full range of detection techniques,” while Sports Minister Kate Lundy reckoned that, at a cost of A$600,000, the implementation of the biological passport initiative was value-for-money. She, like Andruska, noted that the passport would:

1) provide an additional check that no doping had occurred

2) reassure sport fans that the government was on top of things

3) convince the international sporting community that a level playing field was in place

4) remind players and athletes alike that “there is no place for drug cheats in sport


Ban on sleeping pills

Also in July, the Australian Olympic committee (AOC) announced, without warning, that Australia’s Olympic athletes would be banned from using certain brands of sedative-based sleeping pills - Stilnox, Rohypnol and Mogadon to be precise – and, moreover, would have their Olympic Village rooms raided if they were suspected of using these.

The AOC immediately re-wrote the team medical manual to not only include the sleeping pill bans, but also warn athletes on the consequences of taking the drugs.

The medical manual revisions also included a section on “sleep and relaxation strategies”, which advised that deep breathing, muscle relaxation, and just remaining calm, could negate the need for the potentially dangerous use of prescription drugs to get to sleep.

These restrictions were instigated to make sure athletes did not fall into what officials called a “vicious cycle” of addiction to stimulants and sedatives.

The AOC also issued a stern warning that excessive caffeine use was to be stemmed on the basis that it would exacerbate the “upper and downer” cycle.

This attempt to squeeze out sedative use came in the wake of revelations about the troubled domestic life of former swim champion, Grant Hackett.

Australian swimmer Grant Hackett. Wikimedia Commons

In a story in The Australian, Hackett said he had developed a dependency on Stilnox – during a period which included his competition at the Beijing Olympics – after being prescribed the drug by Australian team doctors.

After reading the Hackett story, AOC president John Coates became concerned that the current arrangements on sleeping pills were endangering the health of athletes and were therefore intolerable.

Coates also confirmed athletes would incur the full wrath of officials if they were found to have smuggled the newly banned drugs into the London Olympic village rooms.

Coates then repeated his claim that the regular use of sedatives would be a “very serious offence under our team conditions agreement”, and advised that the Chef-de Mission Nick Green - could not only warn offending athletes, but also suspend them, or even send them home early.

What next?

There should be a complete overhaul of the drug control regulations in Australian sport. While there are good reasons for regulating substances that enhance performance, the justification for handing out heavy suspensions for other types of substances use, even if they might increase the risk of harm, is, to put it mildly, less convincing.

In such circumstances, it would be far more decent to provide advice and support, and guide athletes along less risky substance-use paths.

There is also a human rights issue at stake, since it is reasonable to think that people, no matter what their personal situation or occupational status, should be able to seek out treatment for a condition, or secure medication to make their lives more manageable, without coercive sanctions hanging over them.

It’s time to remodel our drugs in sport controls in order to get a proper balance between the maintenance of a sport’s reputation, the integrity of the contest, its attractiveness to fans, and the rights of players and athletes.

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