Why the war on drugs in sport will never be won

Part 1 of 2 in their blog, authors of the paper ‘Why the war on drugs in sport will never be won’ published in Harm Reduction Journal, Bob Stewart and Aaron C.T. Smith, discuss the current policies to doping in sport and the zero-tolerance model dominating the thinking of sport’s policy makers.


Should drug users in sport be punished to within an inch of their sporting lives? Sport is often at the center of drug-use allegations. The Russian track and field scandal, the Lance Armstrong incident, and the Michael Phelps case confirm that use is rife at all levels of the sporting pyramid.

These cases raise many questions about not only scale and scope of drug use in sport, but also the extent to which drug habits of athletes should be exposed, and their reputations destroyed, even when their use does nothing to enhance on-field performance.

When we examine the history of drug use in sport, and especially its emergence as a problem in the1960s with the manufacture of synthetic testosterone, the main critique was that it was inequitable, and gave athletes who took them an unfair competitive advantage.

As a result it was argued that in order to ensure a level playing field, maintain the integrity of sporting contests, and ensure competitive balance between players and teams, it was necessary to deter players from using drugs and substances that artificially boosted their performance. In the vernacular, players who takes drugs are viewed as nothing less than ‘cheats’ and ‘liars’, and therefore must be severely sanctioned through fines, suspensions and bans.

Is WADA necessary?

When the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) anti-doping code was introduced in 2003, it included bans on the use of performance enhancing drugs throughout the year. This policy was immediately adopted across most of the organized sports world.

it seems unfair to ban an athlete from competing on the grounds that they were found to have taken a drug that does nothing to improve performance.

It begins with the assumption that drug-use in sport – be it illicit or performance-enhancing – is an immoral act that destroys sport’s integrity and good name. This leads into the second assumption, which is that systematic investigating and testing will not only catch cheaters ‘in the act’, so to speak, but also deter use. This second assumption is under-pinned by the belief that in deciding whether to use, or not, players will rationally balance the costs and risks against benefits.

WADA’s drug-use control also works on the principle that the risk of being caught, and the naming, shaming and punishment that follows, will sway the balance of decision making, and lead players to conclude that the costs of use will inevitably outweigh the benefits.

The problem for WADA and its testing regime is that many players do not follow this principle in deciding whether to use, or not. In practice the player logic is applied quite differently than WADA’s modeling suggests. As a result, vigilant testing and heavy sanctions are not always effective deterrents, and in some cases have the unintended consequence of providing incentives for players to try more esoteric drugs and masking agents in order to hide their tracks.

Why does WADA want to punish illicit drug users?

War on drugs in sport

The 2003 WADA policy also placed illicit drugs under the banned substance umbrella. The argument here was that the reputation and good standing of sport will be undermined when players and athletes are found to have taken drugs that are forbidden under government laws and regulations.

So, the policy response here was to also introduce fines and bans as a way of deterring the use of illicit drugs. However, unlike the all-year-round ban on performance enhancing drugs, the illicit drug bans were only applied to in-competition or in-season use.

This meant that players and athletes could technically use illicit drugs out of season (which effectively means in their own time when not directly competing), and not expect to be investigated, tested or punished for their use. But, why should we even demand a ban on  relatively benign drugs like cannabis during periods of competition?

Does the WADA code really protect players, minimize harm, and ensure the integrity of sporting contests?

players who takes drugs are viewed as nothing less than ‘cheats’ and ‘liars’

As far as improving the health and well-being of players is concerned, there may be a marginal improvement if athletes modify their substance-use for fear of being caught. But in practice some players and athletes will seek out non-detectable drugs, even where the health risk may be higher.

The other point to note here is that the two drugs with the greatest health risk to players and athletes are alcohol and tobacco, but there is little that restricts their use, or punishes players for using them.

Neither does WADA policy say much about the use of analgesics and painkillers. However there is some evidence – be it mainly anecdotal at this stage – which indicates that long and enthusiastic prescriptions by physicians and trainers have physically impaired many players and athletes.

And, doesn’t the right to privacy, and the right to autonomy, count for something?

What is more, it seems demonstrably unfair to reveal a player’s private medical records, or ban an athlete from competing on the grounds that they were found to have taken a drug that does nothing to improve performance. Michael Phelps, who is arguably the greatest swimmer of all time, is a case in point.

On the other hand, a case can be made for public shaming and character assassination of Lance Armstrong, who had clearly used banned performance-enhancing substances for a large part of his cycling career. But, it should also be remembered that players run their daily lives in a wider world where drug-use is embedded in community culture and practice.

In this sense, drug-use is the norm rather than the exception! It is no longer deviant to take drugs. We should therefore not be surprised to hear how prevalent drug use is in sport.




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