For years, doping scandals have tarred the reputations of athletes, punctured the spirits of fervent spectators, and above all, defiled the metaphorical “level playing field” of competition. The WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) is an independent agency, funded equally by the sports movement and national governments, who endeavor to harmonize anti-doping regulations that frequent the majority of sports across international borders. Their motives, and that of the sporting federations who have adopted the WADA code, undertake to uphold the integrity of sport, protect athlete health and ensure justice and fairness in competition across the world. Sounds reasonable?

Undoubtedly, the paternalistic principles that underpin the anti-doping movement are tenable. But the success, or lack-there-of, the current preventative anti-doping approach has to show for itself, has reduced the efforts of doping authorities on an international stage to being futile and regrettably fruitless. The unpopular question to ask is whether the end justifies the means? The ‘utopian concept’ of a level playing field might in-fact be best achieved by opening the floodgates to PED (Performance Enhancing Drug) fueled sport. The counter-argument to this being that there would be an onus on all players to push their bodies to the permissible limits with artificial enhancers. But are athletes far off this point as it stands?

The distasteful reality is that, the current system of detection is failing. The reactive nature of anti-doping testing procedures has meant that deserving athletes have been robbed of their moment on the podium, the fame, sponsorship and commendation that ensues an international win. Irish Olympian, Rob Heffernan, having come fourth in the 50km walk in London 2012, was awarded the bronze medal four years later after his finish was upgraded when Russian gold medalist, Sergey Kirdyapkin, was stripped of his medal for doping. The repercussions of the retrospective detection of anti-doping procedures resulted in Heffernan suffering much more than just a delayed medal.

For decades, athletes have found ways around the current testing-system by seeking new undetectable PEDs unknown to WADA testing-agencies and taking substances in micro-doses that fail to meet testing indicator standards. Not only do these technological failures hinder the eradication of PEDs in sport, but more recently WADA encountered a breach of fair procedure in the form of state-sponsored doping in Russia. The Russian ministry responsible for doping-control across Olympic sports, intentionally tampered with samples to conceal the wide-spread athlete doping in the country.  This incredible discovery has drawn a larger smoke-screen over the struggle to pinpoint where exactly the anti-doping movement is failing. Innovative athletes, technological short-comings and now corrupt doping enforcement? Perhaps it is time to accept that playing catch-up can be more disadvantageous than adopting a more controversial harm-reductionist approach by permitting the use of PEDs across all sports.

According to Article 2.1 of the WADA code,

It is each Athlete’s personal duty to ensure that no Prohibited Substance enters his or her body… regardless of whether their was ‘intent, fault, or negligence or knowing use on the part of the Athlete’ upon how the substance entered their system. This ultimately means that a failed test, regardless of whether the athlete had intended to dope or not, is enough to impose a ban which could prove detrimental to an athlete’s career.

Anti-doping efforts stem from the systemically unworkable premise that there are some substances athletes should be allowed to put in their body and others they should not, all depending on whether the ‘WADA Code’ or the ten-commandment equivalent of doping sins, deem them as hindering the spirit of fair-play. This whittled down to in a very basic sense is that; some substances are ‘natural”’ and others are ‘unnatural.’ No matter where you decide to draw that line, it is an ultimately arbitrary divide.

Considering how volatile the WADA ‘banned substances list’ has become, it seems completely unjustifiable to require athletes to be comprehensively proactive about checking the banned substance. Being ‘pharmaceutically pure’, Jack Anderson, (Arbitrator for FAI, GAA and CAS) argues, is a standard we would never impose on ourselves in Western Society. The law here seems gravely imbalanced and heavily sanctions athletes with up to four year bans, even in cases where there appears to be no intent to cheat and the drug was in fact used for medical purposes. Thus was the case when the world-renowned athlete Maria Sharapova tested positive for mildonium (a drug prescribed as a cardio-protective agent and preventative agent for diabetes). Sharapova tested positive at the 2016 Australian Open, just four weeks after the substance was added to the WADA prohibited list.  Despite the fact she had been taken the medication for 10 years, Sharapova received a two-year ban from competition, the equivalent of a prison sentence for an athlete on her tier.

Closer to home, Kerry footballer, Brendan O’Sullivan, tested positive for a banned substance after the national league final against Dublin in 2016. The recently appealed decision by Sports Ireland reduced his ban to 21 weeks on account of mitigating factors, such that O’Sullivan bought the supplement from a vitamin shop in Cork, his reasonable efforts to ‘Google’ the ingredients of the supplement and he admitted his offence and engaged with Sport Ireland. The decision has shone light on the extreme precautions players in the amateur and professional sporting fields have to take to prevent the unyielding repercussions that follow ingestion of seemingly harmless ‘performance enhancers’. Is it feasible to continue this invasive transparency requirement for athletes to record any substance ingested, when the banned substance list continues to grow, and the dichotomy of what is considered a PED and what is simply a natural enhancer continues to blur?

Despite the substantial amount of money being injected into doping-controls and testing, WADA’s former Director General, David Howman, has admitted that the rate of detection in doping schemes was ‘pathetic’ and that doping schemes were catching only ‘dopey dopers’. The perception remains among the sporting community that only the ‘unlucky or pharmacologically unsophisticated’ get caught.  With such empirical evidence suggesting that the actual figure of athletes doping is well into double digits as opposed to the meager rate of detection, currently at 1-2%, are athletes’ health in more danger under a system of total prohibition than a contemporary supervised acceptance approach?

 Sports academics such as C.T Smith have suggested that total prohibition in the past (USA 1920’s) has not led to reduced use of prohibited substances but has instead led to an increase in street prices, poorer quality products and resulted in trafficking becoming more attractive. The current draconian rules and sanctions have only sent the market for the drugs further underground as players search for more exotic and less detectable drugs. The lust for success, reward, pride and making international history outweighs the moral torment that such a faustian bargain could offer. These black-market, unsupervised use of PEDs took the lives of Tommy Simpson, British cyclist, and Kurt Jensen, Danish cyclist, to name but two fatalities, who made the ultimate sacrifice for success in their sport.

In Goldman’s infamous “Death in the Locker Room” survey of 1982, in which nearly 200 elite athletes were asked if they would take an undetectable PED that would guarantee them success in their sport, but would result in their death within five years, 52% of athletes answered in the affirmative. A controversial survey commissioned by WADA took place at two elite competitions in 2011, revealed an astonishing 57% of athletes admitted to doping within the past 12 months. The results were sat on by WADA for six years only to be leaked to the New York Times in 2013. The figure undoubtedly portrays a more realistic depiction of the amount of athletes who currently dope.

The Harm-Reductionist Approach has been increasingly mooted and has gathered momentum in recent years. The principled among us argue that the low ethical standards of others provide no justification for lowering one’s own. However, there must come a point when we should weigh up whether it is more beneficial to tap out, seize up our opponent and reevaluate our strategy, rather than continue to fight a losing battle.

Aoife Brady – Sports Writer