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How sport can move on from a championships marked by the booing of Justin Gatlin

The World Athletics Championships in London have ended after ten days of surprises and disappointments. A late flurry of medals for the home nation buoyed the British crowd, and the world watched on as sprint icon Usain Bolt’s career ended with more of a whimper than a bang. But the abiding memory is that of Justin Gatlin, the US sprinter who has twice failed drug tests, facing the boos of the crowd as he triumphed in the 100 metres final.

Many believe that Gatlin should not have been allowed on the track. Instead, he should have been serving a lifetime ban. Others go further to propose that dopers should be punished not just by sports governing bodies but by the criminal justice system– doping as fraud by false representation.

Whether or not Gatlin’s punishment should have been more severe, he served his time, and he was there by right. His mistake was in breaking an unwritten rule for returning dopers: “You may be allowed back, but you are not allowed win.” We might add on this occassion: “… and you are definitely not allowed to beat Bolt in his last championship.”

The spectacle of a newly crowned world champion being jeered was embarrassing for athletics, and it served as a reminder of just how deep the problem of doping runs. Along with last year’s Russian doping scandal, this difficult moment might just provide the necessary impetus for real reform.

Gatlin takes the gold. EPA/DIEGO AZUBEL

Keep it clean

Current anti-doping strategy revolves around a key article of faith: clean sport can be achieved by incentivising athletes not to dope. The incentives are applied in two ways: testing and punishment. This allows only two responses to any doping scandal: more testing and more severe punishment. The response is always to raise the stakes for dopers so that the gamble of doping becomes foolish. As appealing as this sounds, the approach has not and will not deliver clean sport.

One can imagine how increased penalties for diving in football or high tackling in rugby might reduce the prevalence of these rule violations, but doping is different. Doping takes place away from the arena of competition behind locked doors and drawn curtains. Authorities have neither the right nor the funding to monitor all athletes to the level required to ensure it is in their self-interest to compete clean. So, the alignment of the incentives strategy necessarily fails.

Moreover, the accusatory nature of this strategy, where athletes are treated as if they were either dopers or would-be dopers, is counter-productive. If a system implicitly accuses athletes of wanting to cheat, it is no surprise that many of them will live up to expectation: distrust begets untrustworthiness.

Meaningful competition rests on the trustworthiness of athletes. Doping is not unique in this: match-fixing and match manipulation are also resistant to effective oversight. All are dependant on athletes doing the right thing for the right reasons, not simply in the service of their narrow self-interest. However, trustworthiness cannot be cultivated within an incentive-based system designed to side-step it.

Leap of faith? Stefan Schurr/Shutterstock

Moral training

For the anti-doping movement to make headway, those involved must acknowledge that the testing regime cannot contain the problem. Sport is, and will remain, vulnerable to dopers. Once that is recognised, we can begin to focus on developing among athletes a personal commitment to competing clean.

Sporting authorities should begin by explicitly placing trust in athletes. This involves both abandoning the pretence that dopers are likely to be caught and by emphasising the reliance of sport on the trustworthiness of those within it. Coaches, parents, and volunteers from grassroots level up should cultivate in young athletes a sense of obligation to themselves and to their competitors for how they compete, and an understanding of the values of fairness, participation, and achievement that underpin competition.

Moral training should become a central plank of youth sport coaching alongside physical, tactical, technical and mental training. This would ensure that, by the time athletes reach the upper echelons of competition, honesty and fairness will form part of their self-understanding as athletes, and they will have deeper resources of character to resist the temptation to dope.

Studio Romantic/Shutterstock

Anti-doping education should also provide a real discussion of the rationale for the ban on performance-enhancing drugs. Athletes must be persuaded of the rational defensibility of the ban, so they can endorse the ideal of clean sport “from the inside”, and as worthy of their commitment, not simply as a set of arbitrary rules imposed from above.

The World Anti-Doping Code is notoriously vague on precisely what justifies the ban. Are drugs banned to promote harm prevention, fairness, the purpose of sport or something else entirely?


Sport must also embrace the need to support returning dopers. The system should go beyond temporary exile, and take seriously the need to prepare dopers for return to (clean) competition.

This shift away from incentives and towards a trust-based approach might seem naive, a move that would expose sport to betrayal by athletes like Gatlin. The real naiveté, though, is in maintaining the specious hope athletes can be incentivised not to dope when the surveillance required to achieve this is neither financially viable nor morally acceptable. A better balance must be struck: the testing regime should serve as a deterrent but only as part of a wider anti-doping programme.

Many parents introduce their children to sport because it builds character for life. But what about building character for sport? Rather than focus energies on the hopeless task of aligning incentives, sport authorities should acknowledge the limitations of this approach, and prioritise rational persuasion and moral education. The task is to shape athletes’ convictions, not just their incentives, because, in the final analysis, the integrity of sport rests on the integrity of sportspeople.

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