Play the Game: Doping – many aspects and differing perspectives

In the recent ‘Play the Game’ conference, I took the opportunity to follow some of the lectures and discussions in the area of anti-doping, just as I tend to follow the media debates that tend to flare up when some prominent case has emerged. This does not in any way make me qualified to comment on an expert basis, but I did find several aspects quite interesting and intriguing also for a mere observer.

It has always seemed to me that anti-doping discussions have focused on a few specific topics: how can the testing keep up with continuously emerging new methods of doping and concealment, how strict should the world of sport be in its attitude of generally prohibiting performance through doping, and how severely should one punish those who are caught. But additionally aspects have emerged.

Nevertheless, the most fundamental question seems to remain, both on grounds of principle, and due to difficulties in consistent enforcement: are there reasons to rethink and suggest that certain forms of doping should be allowed and, if so, on the basis of what criteria would one draw the line? It seems there will also be people who suggest that stimulants that are readily available, and therefore would make it possible to retain a ‘level playing field’, should be allowed as long as they do not fall in the category of creating major health risks. Or one would go even further, arguing that the individuals should be allowed to decide for themselves in weighing risks against advantages. To some extent, it mirrors the debate about taking steps towards legalizing certain drugs in the society as a whole.

Of course, many will then say that it is not enough to ensure a level playing field. The positive side of sports is to see what the human body and mind can achieve without stimuli. Moreover, in some sports, where part of the interest in not just in fair competition here and now but also in historic comparisons, doping makes it impossible to see how skills and abilities improve over time. Many argue that, for instance, many of the old world records, achieved in earlier days of inadequate control, now render the performances of top performers, for instance in track and field, uninteresting because they cannot match the old results.

Some of the arguments involving ‘civil liberties’ do not just concern that basic right to choose; they also affect the entire process of testing and fair treatment. Here one general problem is related to the reality that, although testing methods constantly improve, the experts who work on making the use of doping impossible to detect always seem to be one step ahead. This may happen because of new drugs or because of methods that help mask the use of drugs. It is suggested that this makes the drug testing too capricious and therefore inherently unfair, both to the individual and between individuals competing with each other. This was recently highlighted also when it was found that contaminated meat could lead to positive test results, something that provided excuses in the case of a number or Mexican soccer players and created serious concerns in connection with the PanAmerican Games in Guadalajara.

The reliability of testing also becomes an issue from legal and civil liberties standpoint, in the sense that testing methods may have become much more accurate and sophisticated, but the processes in the handling of test materials and test results continue to rely on human intervention, with an inevitable scope for both manipulation and honest mistakes. This means that cases of positive findings may lead to legal battles that effectively undermine the overall anti-doping efforts and also create doubts in the minds of the general public.

Finally, while It may be realistic to establish fairly clear and consistent ‘punishment catalogs’ for different types of doping violations, there will be always be an element of differences in circumstances that requires a subjective judgment to be applied. Perceived inconsistencies will then become yet another reason for those who want to question the overall fairness and moral underpinning of the anti-doping efforts. It becomes even more complicated if the spectrum of international sports federations attempt to follow WADA regulations and determine punishments accordingly, only to find that the IOC wants to apply a separate policy of keeping violating athletes out of the Olympic Games for periods that may not match those of the initial sanctions. In a recent ruling, the Court of Arbitration for Sports determined that this approach violated principles of avoiding double punishment. IOC and WADA will now need to rethink.

All in all, it clearly appears that the overall issue of anti-doping efforts is becoming more complex and therefore more controversial, well beyond the debate about the underlying moral and philosophical aspects. In some ways, scientific progress may add to the complexities rather than being helpful, and the increased focus on human rights and legal considerations makes for a much more difficult atmosphere in all the forms of decision-making. Legitimate concerns are pitched against other fully justified considerations. It is a sad distraction that is not helpful to the focus on other aspects of sports, but it is an issue that cannot be dismissed and will not go away.