Is it possible to win the war on doping?

Anti-doping event

Doping is cheating and should be stopped at all costs. Goes without saying. Yet I attended a discussion this morning hosted by the Institute of Sport and Exercise Medicine and really had my beliefs stretched on just how feasible that really is. Of course we want a level playing field for all athletes. Of course we want to watch ‘fair’ sport. Of course we have a duty of care to athletes’ health to ensure they don’t feel they need to take drugs in order to compete. But how realistic is it? Can it actually be effectively governed?

The debate, titled ‘anti-doping is an unwinnable race’ saw a huge majority of the room agree that it was an unwinnable war, they we can’t govern it, there are just too many variables, too many stakeholders and too much politics in the way. And yet a majority also thought we should be trying, if not for the fairness element then certainly to protect athletes and their health.

Dr Paul Dimeo, a lecturer in sports politics highlighted how, in the 50 years we have been trying to stop doping we have continually failed and yet we do have a delusion of drug free sport. He gave three reasons for why we will never win the war against doping:

  1. It requires every single country to support the efforts. Yet in professionalising and politicising sport, money, power and kudos have got involved ensuring some countries will never want to prioritise anti-doping. He cited the number of positive tests being found through WADA at 2% and yet Dick Pound has suggested the figure maybe closer to 20% and independent research puts it up to 30%. In Russia some estimates suggest it maybe 90%. And then there are countries like China where we know nothing about how their anti-doping testing works and when researchers have tried to find out information was not forthcoming.
  2. It doesn’t create a level playing field because the wrong people get charged for minor infringements and others seemingly get away with so much more. On top of this there are many inconsistencies on how the rules are applied. And those athletes who are sanctioned become so marginalised their mental health can be harmed. I think this area is difficult because surely it is for the athlete to educate themselves about what they ingest. Yet it is easy to say that in a country like the UK where drug education is widely supported by the NGBs and athletes have some autonomy over how they train and who they train with. Should athletes in countries where they are given no choice in their support team, have no drug education and see sport as their way out of poverty, be held up to the same standards?
  3. Finally, Dr Dimeo suggests the current system does not protect the health of the athletes as we are testing for the drugs we have the ability to find, rather than the drugs that actually cause harm.

Therefore, whilst we are unclear on the reasons to be against doping (is it for fairness or to protect athletes), there is a strong motivation for some athletes to dope (to take them and their communities out of poverty), and a lack of resources to test and educate then there are just too many ways in which it will never be stopped.

Michele Verroken, a former director of Ethics and Anti-Doping at UK Sport, proposed that although she agrees with some of the arguments made, it is still important we try to stop doping and we could do so by really understanding what we are trying to control for (to create fairness or to minimise harm) and making the codebook much simpler so it would be easier to try to win the war on doping. But at the moment the key stakeholders don’t have the motivation, or incentivisation, to make the changes needed. In a lovely phrase used by Verroken; ‘the IOC are hosting a party and no-one wants to spoil a party.’

One of the doctors in the audience pointed out the elephant in the room – that the debate was surely coming to an end as genetic manipulation will soon become used for fixing health deficits and then health benefits creating such blurred lines that we will be in a whole new sporting landscape which won’t involve pharmacology. This will be the next big area to contend with, and one which will force the debate back to the basics; why are we against doping? Do we want a level playing field for fairness? Do we want to protect athletes and their health? Or to protect the ‘spirit of sport’?


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