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Doping: Russian Cheats or a Failed System?

A stunning report from a WADA Commission, led by former head of WADA Dick Pound has made a series of allegations against Russian athletes and authorities, including that 1400 samples were deliberately destroyed ahead of a visit by WADA. It recommends the suspension of all Russian athletes over the period including the Rio Olympics, and lifetime bans for five individual athletes and five coaches. It says the London Olympics was “sabotaged”, not only by the Russian authorities, but also by the inaction of the IAAF.

While this report focuses on Russia, early independent analyses of leaked blood profiles estimated at least 1/3 of medals involve doping or raised suspicions of doping. So the problem extends way beyond Russia. Arson Wenger, Arsenal Football Club’s manager, recently claimed doping was widespread in football, a sport which has so far had few scandals.

Back in 2012, there was more confidence in the ability to enforce the rules: speaking ahead of the Olympics, the UK Minister for Sport and the Olympics Hugh Robertson  said:

“We cannot absolutely guarantee that these will be a drug-free games,” he said.

“But we can guarantee that we have got the very best system possible to try and catch anybody who even thinks of cheating.””

Mr Robertson may have been correct that it was the best system possible. But today’s report, and earlier analyses of leaked blood data show that doping is likely to have nevertheless been widespread, amongst both Russian athletes and those of other nations.

I have argued that in the light of the proven inability to enforce a zero tolerance approach to sport, we should instead take a pragmatic approach. As a very brief and incomplete overview, I argue that we should allow doping within safe, measurable physiological parameters. For example, if an athlete’s haematocrit is under say 50%, we should not worry about whether she reached that level by altitude training, hypoxic tent use, genetic good luck, or EPO. We should focus resources on drugs which are unreasonably risky for athletes, or which are against the spirit of the individual sport (by which I mean they substantially remove the human component of a given sport). The doping we allow should be supervised by a medical professional, within prescribed safe ranges, and tested by independent accredited and monitored laboratories. You can read in more detail here or throughout this blog in the Sport category.

This position remains controversial. But its opponents imagine an Eldorado where sport is mainly clean, and that the few athletes who do dope are likely to get their comeuppance. They argue that allowing doping would be unfair to clean athletes who would not be able to compete. They argue that it would push young athletes into doping. But we now know that doping is not a rare aberration. It was not rare in the 90s for cycling, and it is not rare, 20 years later for athletics.

In fact, it is already unfair on those athletes who choose not to dope. It is more unfair now than it would be if we allowed some doping, because clean athletes’ opponents are assumed to be clean unless we hear otherwise. The playing field is decidedly hilly but we refuse to see it as anything other than a few isolated molehills.

It is already the case that young athletes are pressured into doping to make the cross over into professional sport. In fact is is more unfair because they sacrifice their time and energies, told that they will eventually be able to compete “clean” when again, the evidence says that they will be pushed towards doping. Like Trollope’s Augustus Melmotte in The Way We Live Now, we sell them a pipe dream that we know, or should know, is never going to be a reality. And a lot of money is made from that sale.

For years we have pretending that the problem was Lance Armstrong, Dwayne Chambers or Marion Jones. Now we are told it is not individuals, but a country, Russia. Or an organisation, the IAAF. But even these are not the problem. The problem is human nature. Athletics is humanity pushed to extremes, both physically and mentally. There are enormous prizes for extraordinary physical feats. There are effective means of enhancing performance. At the same time antidoping capabilities are anaemic and sporadically enforced.

The rational athlete today knows that it is likely that at least a third of her top ranked colleagues are doping . She knows that only around 2% of her colleagues test positive. She knows that unless she is at the top of her sport, her sponsorship opportunities will end and therefore her livelihood. Doping is not an irrational choice for the athlete. And it is certainly not an irrational choice for her coach, her team or her national federation, who can withstand the loss of the occasional athlete to 2 year bans, if their doing programmes continue. They have very little to lose as there are countless others waiting to take her place.

The situation we are in today has its own unfairness.

It is unfair to scapegoat the few athletes who are caught when we know that the problem is widespread throughout the sport. We know that many athletes will believe, not unreasonably, that there is no other way to win regardless of natural talent and training.

We know Lance Armstrong cheated. But we know that retrospective tests revealed that in 1998 only 9 samples out of 60, belonging to 5 riders had a negative results. 2 of those were from riders who elsewhere admitted to using EPO. The vast majority (44) were positive, others were not testable. We might not admire Armstrong. But we should take no pride in his treatment or the treatment of others like him. And we should not think it has benefited sport.

It is unfair to punish individual athletes when we know that doping is systematic within teams, and now even national athletic federations. We know that there is systematic bullying and pressure on athletes to conform. Athletes are young, and many have sacrificed other forms of career development to focus on their careers. They have little real power.

The report today is stunning but it is not news to anyone who has followed sport. We need to create an enforceable regime that focuses on what matters: athlete health and the spirit of sport. Yes, athletes will still try and cheat wherever the line is drawn. But by focussing on measurable physiological parameters, and only using zero tolerance on drugs that are unsafe in any dose, we will have a chance to alter the balance so the rules we do have are enforceable, and it is rational not to cheat. We will also be able to tell athletes, teams and national agencies that these rules really matter.

Does it matter if someone raises her hematocrit by sleeping in a hypoxic air tent or by using EPO if the result is the same? No. But it does matter if the drug she takes causes cancer, or if she is using a motor in her bike. Those are the rules we should care about. Those are the rules we should enforce.

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1 Comment on this post

  1. The article is certainly right when kt suggests that Russian (and perhaps other) doping is wide spread.
    Doping of athletes in Russia comes to me as no surprise. The only surprise for me is that this has “come out” only now while it must have been known in the “business” of competitive sport for some time.
    My wife was in the Russian squad preparing for the 1960 (!) Rome Olympics. She told me, before she died of a very rare blood disorder in 1999, that athletics coaches would give out to their charges “handful of pills” every day to take, no explanation given, no questions answered when asked, no refusals to take the pills accepted.
    The practice is clearly both cheating and failed system.
    Perhaps a way to look at this is that we should not single out sport as being different from other human activities such as business. And after all, “sport” has now become Big Business, and success in sport is principally measured by how much money one makes. As far as I understand it, doping is not a criminal offence, so we should not be surprised and judge that all possible means are used to win…

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