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November 12/15 18:37 pm - Editorial: Do We Need a Different Approach to Doping & Cheating?

Posted by Editor on 11/12/15

The revelations that Athletics in Russia is riddled with state-sanctioned doping and cover-ups is just the latest in the series of scandals that continues to hit sports. While many will profess to be shocked and appalled that Athletics is dirty, it is really no different from what we went through with football (soccer), cycling and, before that, figure skating judging scandals.

It is really very simple: if there is enough money, prestige or power (take your pick) on the line, then some individuals and organizations will cheat. Sometimes 'enough' is a ridiculously small level - witness the cheating by Masters age athletes in local participation events.

The fight to combat doping has also spiraled to extreme levels. Athletes are required to provide 24/7 notice of their whereabouts to anti-doping authorities, submit to testing at all sorts of hours, provide blood and urine samples, and allow the compilation of biological passports. If any employer or government agency tried to require this of its citizens, there would be an immediate uproar over the trampling of civil and legal rights.

But athletes do allow this to happen, all in the interests of clean sport, despite mounting evidence that it is only somewhat successful in catching cheaters. Ironically, the obsessive chase after cheaters can also result in the tainting of clean athletes who inadvertently use banned products, sometimes in such infinitesimal amounts that there is no possibility of performance enhancement.

The system is broken, and trying to fix it by increasingly draconian testing procedures, or threatening to ban entire countries from competing, just intensifies efforts to beat it. This fits the classic definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over, while hoping for a different outcome.

I'm not suggesting that we don't try to stop cheating; I firmly believe in fair and clean sport, plus the human carnage that would result from uncontrolled doping is horrible to contemplate.

However, the current system has fatal flaws, and we need to start a discussion on better ways to achieve the goal of fair and clean sport. It's time to think outside the box.

One example is the proposal by Oxford University ethicist Julian Savulescu for pragmatic doping controls. He argues that doping should be allowed 'within safe, measurable physiological parameters'. So, in his example, if a 50% hematocrit level is the healthy maximum, then what does it matter whether an athlete reaches the maximum healthy level by EPO, genetics, altitude training or hypoxic tent use? As long as the athlete doesn't engage in unhealthy practices and is medically supervised, allow them to use drugs as part of their training regime.

Testing for banned substances would be replaced by testing for the health of the athlete; are there unhealthy levels or types of drugs in their system, do they have organ damage (say, from too much steroid use), is their hematocrit level at an unhealthy level? If there is (from any cause), then the athlete can't compete.

It's an interesting idea. I'm not sure that I personally am in complete agreement with it, but we do need to start a dialogue on better ways to achieve a fair and level playing field. After all, that is the goal isn't it? Not what we don't want (doping), but rather what we do want (fair competition). Somehow, we have lost sight of that in the hunt for cheating.

You can read about Dr Savulescu's ideas: Doping: Russian Cheats or a Failed System?, Le Tour and Failure of Zero Tolerance: Time to Relax Doping Controls.

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