Why it’s time to give up on sport’s war against doping

Sport's relationship with doping is a long-running one.

Sport's relationship with doping is a long-running one. Photo: Getty


The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is in crisis control. Again.

Its latest fiasco concerns the Russian-based hacker outfit Fancy Bears, who have done sport a huge service.

In publishing WADA’s Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) records of leading sportsmen and women, the hackers have revealed how the exemptions can be exploited legally by athletes to dope.

An exemption allows athletes to take medications banned by WADA under normal circumstances, and while the majority of athletes on TUEs have legitimate medical conditions, it is easy to see how the system can be abused by a dodgy doctor.

And dodgy doctors – and doping – have always been part of sport.

It’s the clean sport crew who are the new kids on the block.

Marathon runners and cyclists have doped since sport’s early days. American Tom Hicks won the 1904 Olympic marathon dosed on strychnine.

Cycling cultivated a doping culture better than most.

Five-time Tour winner Jacques Anquetil told Sports Illustrated in 1969 that the need “to go faster to make even greater effort” required the use of “stimulants”.

Anquetil’s name is still on the list of Tour winners; Lance Armstrong’s is not.

The seven-time winner became the fall-guy for cycling’s doping culture when he was stripped of his titles in 2012.

Armstrong was merely doing what many cyclists have done for generations – doped.      

doping in sport

Lance Armstrong confessed he was a drug cheat on American television. Photo: Getty

It was the Cold War that gave doping a bad name.

The Russians and East Germans were putting more athletes on Olympic podiums than the Americans, and it fuelled a race to produce the best test-tube athlete. The East Germans won.

With a population of 17 million, they punched well above their weight, revolutionising training methods and introducing systemic doping practices.

As Mark Johnson noted in his recent book Spitting in the Soup, East Germany employed over 1500 sports science researchers, 1000 doctors and 4700 coaches to manufacture the world’s best synthetically concocted athletes.

When the Berlin Wall came down, the human cost was apparent.

Cancers, birth deformities and gender realignments were common, not to mention details about the injection of minors with performance-enhancing concoctions.

Yet East German sports practices were exported around the world, even to squeaky-clean Australia.

In 1997, the Australian athletics team attempted to hire Ekkart Arbeit as its head coach.

When news leaked that Arbeit had been a member of the East German secret police, the Stasi, his appointment was terminated.

The Americans were also on ‘the juice’.

doping in sport

Jay Silvester’s comments tarnished the Munich Olympics. Photo: Getty

According to American track and field star Jay Silvester, 60 per cent of his teammates were on steroids during the 1972 Munich Olympics.

By the late 1980s, doping was entrenched as part of international sport.

Indicative was the 100-metre sprint final at the Seoul Olympics.

Almost all competitors had at once stage during their career tested positive for a banned substance.

The IOC, with support from governments and sporting bodies, then attempted to rein in the dopers through the establishment of WADA.

But it and its associated agencies have proved woefully ineffective.  

Despite an increase in the number of athletes testing positive since the 2000 Sydney Olympics, WADA has only touched the tip of the doping iceberg.  

It surfaced in reports of Kenyan and Jamaican athletes avoiding drug testers.

But it was most apparent in the McLaren Report, detailing Russia’s systematic doping at the Sochi Olympics. The Russians were only continuing a well-entrenched tradition.

doping in sport

A sign warning athletes they would be tested in Sochi. Photo: Getty

Though more athletes are getting caught, the smart, cashed-up dopers avoid detection. With a paltry budget of $30 million, WADA is hopelessly under-resourced to police doping.

As sports academic Paul Dimeo recently wrote, a new system is needed which is neither based on prohibition or the complete liberalisation of performance-enhancing drugs.

The best solution has been offered by Oxford-based ethicist Julian Savulescu.

He suggests allowing some forms of doping to level the playing field.

Substances that are produced naturally in the body, such as EPO, should be allowed within certain limits.

More importantly, Savulescu states, the emphasis must move from prohibition to ensuring athletes’ health.

It may not mean the end of programs such as the one used by East Germany.

But it would lessen the chances of mad sports scientists and other charlatans taking control of sport’s many asylums. 

Dr Tom Heenan teaches sports studies at Monash University.

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