With Tour de France champion Alberto Contador testing positive for a banned substance, it is time to completely reconsider how we, the fans, and therefore governments deal with drugs in sport. The current system is broken, mired in controversy and utterly inconsistent.
It appears that Contador has tested positive for clenbuterol, a type of beta-antagonist — in simple terms a type of asthma medication. Absurdly, there are four broad types of asthma medications; two are allowed and two are not. While the reasons may be clear to the anti-doping administrators, this sort of inconsistency creates a minefield for athletes and sports doctors. This minefield undermines any claims to legitimacy of seeking “drug free sport” that the World Anti-Doping Code, and its army of devout crusaders might have.
The “just say no” policy towards drugs in sport stops athletes from being able to access drugs the way that ordinary people might. And for what? Protecting the money sports get from sponsorship, endorsement and advertising from the big end of town? It certainly isn’t about preserving athletes as role models, otherwise we would be doing the same thing to rock stars and A-list celebrities like Paris Hilton. Where is her ban for cocaine use? And it certainly isn’t about protecting athletes. They are driven to take drugs by governments, sponsors and fans that demand winners. Let’s see if you can remember which Australians won silver or bronze medals at Beijing.
Instead, the “just say no” policy forces athletes underground to use horse steroids or unknown substances bought on the internet from dubious overseas labs, or from ‘juiced-up’ gyms all over Australia.
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Perversely, the rules governing anti-doping strip basic human rights, as defined by the UN, away from athletes. In Australia, Olympic athletes must tell the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) where they will be, in writing, three months in advance, just in case they need to be tested out of competition. This means telling ASADA where you will be on Christmas Day just in case they want to spring a random test on you. How would you react to telling someone where you would be after work for a random drug test?
Athletes operate under strict liability — if the substance is in their body, then they get punished and labelled a drug cheat forever — irrespective of their guilt. This is the absurdity that faced Australian swimmer Ryan Napoleon who received a ban, despite the pharmacist mis-labeling his medication and admitting to it. An appeal was made — and just granted — for the ban to be lifted in time for him to compete at the upcoming Commonwealth Games.
All drugs are treated identically for athletes, whether performance enhancing, performance detracting or illicit. Drugs that anyone else is allowed to consume, for example marijuana in the ACT, results in an athlete being banned for two years. There is no performance bonus from smoking a joint on game day, or even after game day, yet the reputation and livelihood of athletes can be destroyed by using a de-criminalised substance. The crazy part is that while drugs with no advantage (i.e. marijuana) are banned for athletes, others we know increase sporting performance, like caffeine and pseudoephedrine, are allowed.
The anti-drugs crusaders around the world have created an empire out of punishing athletes. The absurdities of the system, the attack on human rights and the scraping of any form of natural justice is wrong and unfair. It is imperative that we move away from punishment and into better ways of managing drugs in sport that prioritise the health and well-being of athletes. When the athletes are healthy, sport will be too.
*Drs James Connor and Jason Mazanov are senior lecturers in the School of Business, University of New South Wales, and research and write extensively on drugs in sport. This article is based on a paper published in the International Journal of Sport Policy.