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Doping in sport: who is to bless and who is to blame?

Essendon champion Jobe Watson said this week he believes he was injected with a banned substance - but who is to blame for the saga surrounding him and his club? AAP/David Crosling

Essendon captain and reigning Brownlow medallist Jobe Watson has admitted that he believes he was injected with the banned substance AOD-9604. The anti-obesity drug is at the centre of the ASADA investigation into the supplements program at Essendon during 2012.

While some have called for Watson to return his Brownlow Medal, others believe he has no case to answer, arguing that the club should be held accountable for the welfare of its players.

The admission reignites a debate central to the issue of drugs in sport: is it the athlete - in this case Watson - who should pay the price for his indiscretions? Or does the onus of blame belong to a higher power?

Media commentary on doping scandals has largely focused on individual athletes and ignored the systems and environments in which they train and compete.

The Lance Armstrong case is a classic example with a huge backlash against Armstrong himself. Cries of “liar” and “cheat” often came from the same people who fed his lust for success by previously glorifying his achievements.

However, after the initial media frenzy attacking Armstrong the individual, various commentators started to look at the role of doctors, team administrators, and the International Cycling Union (UCI) itself. There was a dawning awareness that doping on this scale clearly required substantial help from numerous others, and turning a blind eye from just as many.

The Australian Crime Commission (ACC) report on organised crime and drugs in sport - and the continuing ASADA investigations into Essendon and NRL club Cronulla - have put some of these figures under the spotlight. These have so far included pharmaceutical companies, sports scientists, doctors and coaches - in concert with criminals and others – all of whom can profit financially from an athlete’s performance.

Naturally this ACC report was accompanied by a string of politicians and sports administrators professing to be outraged by this whole matter. Sports minister Kate Lundy vowed to hunt down and catch the evil-doers in our midst. But all the while they remained oblivious to the role of those in power in allowing - if not facilitating - such a situation to occur.

Drugs in sport, cheating and match-fixing are not just the result of a few unethical or criminal minds. They are a reflection of the broader societal forces impinging on sporting sub-cultures.

There is the “medicalisation” of society in general - a pill for every ill and an ill for every pill - which is concretely demonstrated in the anti-ageing clinic connections in the ACC report.

The commercialisation, if not corporatisation, of sport has led to the replacement of moral values with dollar values. The intensification of sporting schedules to feed this sport-as-entertainment business has led to the need for performance-enhancing and recovery substances just to keep up. There is also a strong self-enhancement focus in areas such as cosmetic surgery, body image and cognitive performance.

The commercialisation of sport is evident in the ubiquity of brands on athletes’ clothing, merchandise and venues. That sport has lost its moral compass is evident. In spite of the extensive evidence of ill-health and social distress resulting from alcohol and gambling, sporting events are saturated with alcohol and gambling advertising. All the while, sports administrators continually purport that such sponsorships don’t contribute to these ill effects.

And what of government? Governments have long used sport for their own political advantage, whether on the international stage or to appease their electorates back home.

Australian swimmers were offered cash bonuses for success at the London Olympics - does this sort of commercialisation cheapen sport? EPA/Barbara Walton

And now the ultimate debasement has occurred without many people probably even being aware of it, and probably not caring much anyway given the increasingly “branded” nature of the world in general. Winning a medal at the Olympics, particularly a gold medal was once considered priceless. Who could, or would even dare, put a value on Olympic ideals?

Now, governments around the world, including our own, do exactly that. The Australian government reportedly offered A$20,000 for gold at the London Olympics, with a boosted bonus of A$35,000 for a swimming gold.

Just imagine the outcry if the government were to announce various bonuses for medals awarded to troops in battle, with a special bonus of A$50,000 for a Victoria Cross.

As Michael Sandel points out in his book What Money Can’t Buy, putting a dollar value on something previously valued in its own right leads to a lessening - if not an obliteration - of that object’s original intrinsic value.

Once a dollar value is assigned to an object, this becomes a market commodity – a signal that it is “up for sale”. While winning gold, in some sports, has long been an avenue to fame and fortune - and therefore already a good reason to get a little help, legal or otherwise - the declaration of a specific dollar payment for the medal itself undermines, if not removes, any remaining moral inhibitors to doing whatever it takes to get one.

In short, the commercialisation of sport – by business, government and sports administrators - has corrupted the values of sport and removed the moral basis for integrity in sport.

So let’s cut the hypocrisy and cut to the chase. Professional sport is no longer sport. As Super 15 rugby star Digby Ioane stated as a reason for accepting an offer to play in France: “it’s all a business matter”.

Either put values back into professional sport or call it something else. At the very least another name might lessen professional sport’s insidious contamination of amateur sport and help preserve the values that we all once cherished.

In the meantime, let’s explicitly acknowledge that it’s now just another form of commercial enterprise requiring experienced managers rather than sports administrators with a “love for the game”, and police it accordingly.

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