Friday, January 30, 2009

Big stick not the answer to drugs in sport

By Martin Hardie

From ABC Online:

No matter how many tests occur, the much-vaunted cultural change in relation to doping doesn't seem to have taken place. (AFP Photo: Joel Saget, file photo)

Over the last decade money for drug testing in sport has increased. Some countries such as France and Italy have even criminalised doping offences. The sticks keep getting bigger and the costs keep getting more prohibitive, but the problem just doesn't seem to go away.

Although some might argue for a level playing field were enhancement techniques are available to all, that is not the way forward. But neither is the road we are on today. We need more than more tests, more police and greater sanctions. To respond appropriately, we need to understand what is driving doping. For that we must engage the athletes in a meaningful way.

Federal Sports Minister Kate Ellis has announced that Australia will now get even tougher on drugs in sport. The aim, we are told, is to get rid of the 'cheats' and to send a message about clean sport and that in itself sport is healthy. But one of the problems of anti-doping policy is on what basis are we intervening? This is a question currently being put to the European Parliament; however it is not a question being asked here. Were this question asked we may get an anti-doping policy that goes beyond well-worn mantras and a big stick. For example there is ample material concerning the problem of anti-doping policy and elite sport which points to the fact that elite sport is, in fact, not very good for your body at all. The years of stress on the body and the constant objective of pushing that body to the limits take their toll, as many a retired sportsperson will tell you. But we still hold up these excesses as being good for you and, as such, not in need of any outside assistance.

On what basis do we intervene? Is it to ensure fair play, to ensure a level, free and open sporting marketplace; are we seeking to protect public health, or are we really when it comes to the crunch, more concerned with protecting the reputation and investment of government and business?

The inconsistency between sports also calls out for some analysis - Ponting and Smith can shoot up all the cortisone they like it seems, but the whiff of it in the blood of a cyclist results in a moral panic of Tour de France proportions. Another problem that we face is that current big stick policing approach, as both the Australian Sports Anti Doping Agency (ASADA) and the European Union have recognised, is not financially viable in the long term. The prohibitive cost of drug, blood and DNA analysis is why professional cyclists are now contributing 3 per cent of their income each year to fund the 'vampires', as they are known in the sport.

What the last few years of anti-doping policy in cycling has shown us is that no matter how many tests occur, despite things like DNA testing and biological passports, despite the real and actual threat of police detention and criminal prosecution, the much-vaunted cultural change in relation to doping doesn't seem to have taken place. The positive tests and expulsions from the last three editions of the Tour de France are, we are told quietly, just the tip of the iceberg. The sport's administrators themselves are now slowly coming to grips with this problem - the policing and prosecution model just doesn't seem to be achieving the results.

In the face of this situation we can note that there are options that have not yet been pursued by those who wish to stamp out doping in sport. Business and government (the main backers of elite sport) do not seem interested in the social, economic and historical conditions that have given rise to doping. Even if that question is too tough there is no interest in the implication of sporting administrators in the process, or just the broader question as to why? What factors make an athlete susceptible? What things could we do to change the career and working structure of an athlete to avoid such choices? Should we be reconsidering the meaning of success in elite sport?

In short, the conditions as to 'why' are ignored in favour of a crackdown, an emergency, yet another contemporary moral panic complete with its mantras of 'zero tolerance' and 'tough on cheats'. We have been increasing the penalties for years and nothing has changed. It's time for a new approach which engages athletes (other than as objects of surveillance and prosecution) and asks the big question as to why? The way forward is not a big stick but providing athletes with real career options so that going for gold is not the be all and end all of their career.

Martin Hardie is a law lecturer, with the school of law, at Deakin University. He is currently working on a project which will involve cyclists in the process of formulating and implementing a sustainable anti-doping policy

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