3 Solutions to Doping

Updated: Jul 10, 2018

Last month we delved into doping and the debate of whether it would be better to legalise it or keep it banned (catch up here). It was argued that doping could be legalised in the interest of fairness and safety, but the arguments fell short as the possible negative effects of legalising doping far outweighed the good.

After concluding that legalising doping is not a satisfactory solution, we have identified the main reasons of why we believe doping still exists and provided three ways to tackle the issue.

1. Corruption within anti-doping and sport organisations means dirty athletes often go free

One of the main factors stopping athletes doping is that the people involved in anti-doping are too emotionally, politically and/or financially invested in the athlete or sport to expose him or her. This is highly problematic as even with the right testing procedures to catch out athletes, we cannot be sure that the results are always reported. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been accused of covering up dirty athletes on numerous occasions, for example at the Atlanta Games in 1996 where several athletes tested positive for banned masking agent Probenecid, and again at the 2008 Beijing Games. The IOC have ignored positive results time and time again, suggesting that their personal concerns often override their desire to do the right thing.

These concerns will often involve protecting the popularity of sport, as well as one’s own reputation. People working in the sports industry at elite level, such as for the IOC, are often reliant on a strong network of people to support them in their positions, meaning that decisions that should be made separately from their personal interests become way too personal. With so much at stake, it is easy to see why people choose to turn a blind eye.

Additionally, the people who do choose to do the right thing by coming forward, also known as whistleblowers, are not being provided with near enough support nor incentive, meaning that it’s much easier to ignore information than to reveal it. In a culture where ignoring doping is the more attractive option, it is no wonder that only 1-2% of dopers are reported, even though an estimated 14-39% of athletes dope.

A very low number of dirty athletes are currently exposed when doping.

Solution: Recruit non-sports people for anti-doping positions, and create an independent doping test and enforcement agency

Providing whistleblowers with an environment where they are supported is essential to encouraging people to do the right thing. Similarly, there is no reason why punishing those who choose to turn a blind eye won’t have the same effect. Just as with dopers themselves, the idea is to encourage those who play by the rules and punish those who choose not to.

Additionally, it is about time that a new anti-doping agency is created, completely independent of WADA and the IOC. Within this organisation, the people with the highest incentive to expose athletes would be at the forefront of any decision-making. Bringing in people outside of the sports industry, with the task of exposing rather than simply testing, creates a culture of openness and honesty – at the fear of dirty athletes. Bringing in experts in areas such as Health, Business and Law to advise on anti-doping strategy offers a solution to ending the corruption that easily manifests itself in the sports industry. Someone with a background in Law could provide insight into effective punishment strategy, whilst a Health professional could advise on overcoming unhealthy societal patterns.

It is important to note that this agency would be created for exposing, rather than simply testing, which, as we’ve seen in the past, are two very different things. This could be enforced by producing targets for catching athletes, making it very hard for officials to turn down the opportunity to expose an athlete. WADA was originally founded as an independent testing agency, however it receives half of its funding from the IOC, and so there is a worry that a conflict of interest between the IOC and WADA can result in test results being covered up.

The IOC funds half of WADA, making decision-making surrounding doping extremely complex.

2. Athletes are more likely to partake when unaware of the side effects

Whilst we don’t know the precise health effects of doping long-term, we know that dopers should be concerned. WADA has produced a list of concerning health issues caused by doping;

  • supplement companies are not heavily regulated, meaning that you can’t always trust the label

  • the side effects of medication, taken by someone who doesn’t need it, can have terrible health consequences

  • blood doping may result in an increased risk of heart failure, stroke, kidney damage and high blood pressure, problems with your blood (infection, poisoning etc), and problems with your circulatory system

  • steroids, EPO, stimulants, HGH, masking agents and other drugs tend to come with serious side effects, with everything from cardiac disorders to liver damage

Young athletes are taking what they can to improve their performance with little understanding of the negative effects of performance-enhancing drugs.

Solution: Educate children and young athletes from an early age

As with any issue, putting strategies in place to try to prevent it before it happens is essential. The sport industry needs to ask itself whether it’s doing enough in this regard – or whether the path to doping is too tempting to pass up. Current strategies to educate athletes through their national governing bodies, clubs and federations are of course vital, but implementing teaching through an independent source is even more so, as this would avoid risks of the teaching being influenced. Campaigns on other health and safety issues such as irresponsible driving have proved effective, and there is no reason why more cannot be done to prevent doping in the same way. If the health effects listed by WADA were discussed in schools in the same way as the ‘Safe Drive Stay Alive’ campaign, with case study examples, visual material and scientific teaching on the health effects of doping, we could reduce the number of young athletes being tempted.

3. Athletes who dope are rewarded with success, and clean athletes are punished with failure. The rewards are worth the risks

Ever heard a dirty athlete explaining why they doped? Did it go something like this?

‘Everyone else was doping, so I had to dope to remain competitive.’ I thought so. Athletes such as Lance Armstrong have used this defence to explain their decision for doping, and whilst most people’s initial response is to shrug and say that it’s a weak excuse, it is perhaps the most common drive behind people choosing to dope. And we shouldn’t be so quick to judge; during Armstrong’s Tour de France wins (1999-2005), 87% of the top-10 finishers were confirmed dopers (69%) or suspected of doping.

Athletes competing in a doping-dominated sport such as cycling can either dope or give up competing at a level they have worked toward their whole lives – a heart-breaking dilemma at the best of times.

Other examples include political involvement; no one will forget the government-heavy involvement in the Russia doping scandal in 2014 following the Sochi Winter Games, where, according to Oscar-winning documentary Icarus, an estimated 99% of athletes were doping at the instruction of President Vladimir Putin and Sport Minister Vitaly Mutko. We can imagine how often the pressure to dope leaves the athlete feeling like they have no choice.

There was a lot of controversy regarding Russia’s participation in the latest Winter Olympics following the 2014 Sochi Scandal.

Solution: Hold the team of people behind the athlete liable, enforce stronger punishments, and utilise technology

To fight the doping culture within certain sports, it is the responsibility of the sports industry to stop athletes from being put into the dilemma discussed above. Being proactive about this issue, rather than blaming individual athletes by shaming them in the media, whilst the rest of their competitors go free and continue to dope, does not seem the most proactive way to stop doping. Instead, we need to investigate the structure of the ‘blame system.’

In almost all cases, it is not the athlete him or herself who has sourced out certain drugs on the black market, without the knowledge, encouragement, or even expectation of the athlete support personnel (the term for anyone providing support to the athlete during their participation in a support, according to WADA). Rather, there will be a doping strategy in place for achieving the desired effects of each substance, put together by a team of experts.

According to WADA code, the athlete is always held strictly liable for doping charges, with athlete support personnel risking charges if they are caught being involved in the doping strategy. Whilst the team behind an athlete should certainly be held responsible, we can assume that few are ever caught, considering how many support personnel each athlete or team has. The problem is that a member of the support personnel must be caught possessing a prohibited substance/method, trafficking in a prohibited substance/method, or administrating a prohibited substance/method to the athlete.

Considering how few athletes are caught under strict testing procedures, we can only imagine how many coaches and doctors go free, with way less advanced tactics in place.

By putting more resources and better strategy into place to charge the athlete support personnel, we could disrupt a culture of intense peer pressure. Enforcing stricter rules and monitoring around coaching and health procedures would not only provide the evidence needed to hold coaches and doctors liable, but would also make it easier for anti-doping organisations to catch out athletes in the first place. In addition, the rules on liability are currently too vague considering that involvement of support personnel is highly likely when an athlete dopes. You could even go as far as saying that the coach of an athlete should be held liable to the same extent as the athlete – this should steer coaches away from encouraging doping and incentivise them to keep a very keen eye on their athlete.

Holding all people aware of a doping strategy liable, in combination with enforcing stronger punishments, would make a lot of people think twice before encouraging doping, or choosing to dope themselves. If every athlete caught doping was to be banned from the sport for life, and if every athlete’s support personnel were banned from working in their professions, it wouldn’t take long for the doping culture pattern to shift.

Finally, investing in more advanced testing technology can help punish dirty athletes and reward those that remain clean. It should be used not only for accurate testing, but for enforcing what substances are legal and illegal in a zero-tolerance way. By making sure that each athlete and their team of people are being informed on every single change within doping policy, with data being collected on athletes receiving the information, there can be no excuse for dopers to plead ignorance, making it even easier to enforce stricter punishments.

The solutions discussed in this article would all be steps in the right direction, but each anti-doping implementation needs to play its part for us to achieve success in reducing doping. It is naïve to think that an independent anti-doping agency, better education on doping or improved technology can each stop doping on their own, but if all parts of the operation were to work together, these solutions could bring sport one step closer to becoming an industry of integrity.