Feb 8, 2013

The real sacrifice of athletes — giving up their privacy

We ask a lot of athletes, and with a drug cloud over elite sport in Australia we will ask to invade their privacy even more. It's unfair and pointless, writes sports researcher Dr James Connor.

Who are the people most under surveillance in Australian society? Terror suspects subject to ASIO observation? Prisoners in jail? Outlaw bikie gang members? Try elite athletes. And it's about to get much worse for them and anyone connected with them. The report by the Australian Crime Commission that has supposedly found "widespread" doping and corruption in Australian sport (with no prevalence rates or evidence released) has been used as a catalyst by Minister for Sport Kate Lundy to introduce even further powers of compulsion and observation for the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority to "get tough" on drugs. Elite athletes subject to ASADA testing already have to provide the organisation with their location, at all times, three months in advance. An hour every day between 6am and 10pm must be nominated where the athlete will be available for drug testing. Failure to comply with this, or heaven forbid, failure to be where you had stated you are, means you can be sanctioned for an anti-doping rule violation and subsequently banned from sport. Consider just for a moment the privacy you have abandoned for the privilege of being in sport. The testing looks for performance enhancing drugs as well as illicit drugs. These same illicit drugs are used by many in Australia, but as an athlete you can be banned, and lose your income and reputation, for having used those drugs. In the interests of not spoiling lunch, I won't describe the process of actual collection -- rest assured, there is no privacy at all. Another problem with the doping rules is the idea of strict liability. As an athlete, if you have a substance in your body you are liable. No excuses, no leniency -- you are a drug cheat. This has led to absurd outcomes where pharmacists have admitted to making a mistake (oops, wrong bottle) yet the athlete still is a "cheat". Further, the penalties (two years or life -- unless you divulge) are unfair and arbitrary. A two-year ban for a short-life athletic career (gymnastics) is effectively a life ban, whereas for long-lived sports (eg rowing) it is a training break. No account of the sport, age of the competitor nor severity of cheating is taken into account. Disturbingly, it has just got even worse. Under the changes announced, ASADA will be able to compel people to tell them about doping and if you don’t, you are subject to civil penalties. It is easy to imagine how an athlete might talk about drugs, drug use and what they have seen with a parent or partner. Now ASADA can force those partners and parents to divulge that entire conversation to their investigators. They can now also follow an athlete’s mail -- with Australia Post to be authorised to release mailing information. What is so special about elite athletes (and anyone connected with them) that they must give up all privacy, tell a government authority where they are at all times, be subject to the most rigorous and onerous drug testing regime of any workplace, and risk being banned for life? Why would a cash-strapped government be willing to spend so much money on pursuing this? Athletes don’t put other people's lives at risk -- like surgeons or truck drivers -- so what is the point of such a draconian and expensive system? The only answer offered is that somehow sport is "special" and has a unique place in Australian society that must be protected. It certainly is special in terms of the tax largesse handed out to elite athletes in Australia, but in terms of some moral specialness, sport is just sport. We are desperately worried about the alleged unfairness of drugs, yet turn a blind eye to the real problem of sport and fairness -- money, training facilities and access to sport science. These all tilt the level playing field more than doping. The most absurd thing about the doping panic? Drugs have never guaranteed victory. *Dr James Connor is a senior lecturer at the University of NSW's School of Business. He currently has two research projects funded by WADA via its social science research program

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12 thoughts on “The real sacrifice of athletes — giving up their privacy

  1. Ruprecht

    Most sensible article on this subject I’ve read all week. Top stuff.

  2. john willoughby

    this would be the same crime commission that has been snoozing on white collar crime since 2009.. surely its going to arrest someone soon…

  3. Ian

    Good article. As usual our governments devote enormous effort and taxpayer’s money on more or less trivial matters and neglects or skirts around the real issues confronting us eg homelessness, our unquestioning co-operation with the rogue American & Israeli regimes, over concentration on mining at the expense of just about all else – the list goes on.

  4. Gavin Moodie

    I also find it extraordinary, and unacceptable, that footballers are tested for recreational drugs that do not improve and probably impair performance.

  5. Mark out West

    Boo Hoo
    Nurses (4 years study – $60,000 works shift work and see all sorts of yucky stuff. Policeman $80,000 (you know the rest.

    As a 17 year old (maybe with little academic prowess)has the the potential to earn minimum $250,000 plus, to run on the field for 100 minutes to the adulation of the supporting team.

    Carers stays at home save the nation billions, gets a pittance and is never offered those growth hormone to help lift the spouse out of bed for the 300 time.

    Get over yourself and suck a bit of reality, these are privileged kids who can earn in a career what most of us take more than a life time.

    The two AFL players that I know spoke about the enormous amounts of cash money they were given when they won.

    So please no crocodile tears.

  6. mikeb

    @mark out west. The article was about elite athletes not just highly paid professional AFL or soccer “stars”. Probably 90% of adult athletes are on struggle street or holding down paid jobs with, if they are lucky, sporting expenses paid by one of the sports institutes. The American model of sporting scholorships into educational College doesn’t exist to any extent in Australia, so it’s usually the parents who have to bear the expenses until such time as the young athlete can stand on their own.

  7. Mark out West


    Life decisions for the majority are based on comprises and one of those is whether to pursue a personal dream or become part of the machine.
    If you pursue your dream in a sport that doesn’t come with large amounts of remuneration is a personal decision,these sports would also not come with the usual press intrusions.
    But forgive me if the price for these athletes compete on en even playing field is to urn up for a ur*ne test.
    Do we go back to the good old days when it was whoever had the best chemists won or maybe it still is and the war has just begun.

    The article is a crock because the main beneficiaries are those ethical sportsman out there who we all want to see succeed. Or is Lance Armstrong only a POOR victim of circumstance and those people he cheated to the podium collateral damage?

  8. Ian Rogers

    The situation is even worse than Dr Connor describes. Elite athletes can have their health wrecked by avoiding substances which would be regarded as good medical treatment for normal people but are banned for athletes by WADA. There is a lawsuit just waiting to happen by an athlete who ruined their health by following WADA’s rules to the letter through fear of being labelled a cheat.

  9. GF50

    It’s the money people. The athletes are allowed to avail themselves to the best treatment for injuries/ill health. This must be documented and disclosed, withholding period noted and must not play/officially train while drug in system. Same as racehorses otherwise they are in breach of the rules. Due process please.
    The money bet on Australian sport is phenominal and that is what alerted blind freddy to systemic cheating/ fixing. Part of the conditions of a bookie’s licence (read spiv, tout)is to disclose betting sheets. Authorities then just follow the money trail. Betting has never improved “the level playing field” nor lowered the the opportunity for corruption. It is as simple as defrauding the average “mug” punter.
    Please note that the online betting agencies suspended betting on the date of the election prior to the unexpected/ surprise announcement of the date so far out from said date, due to very unexpected activity in the market. ??prior knowledge.

  10. Spike

    ‘Mark Out West:’ Exactly! Australian media + other actors have socially engineered for decades. Producing children to adults: a population holding sport as their ‘religion.’ Radio/ TV / newspaper gives priority to sports ‘heroes,’ sports stories over world/ Australian events. These non sports events have far deeper meaning + impact on us that some adulated, spoiled ‘brat,’ simpering about his/her non selection! Terming sporting folk ‘heroes’is an insult to REAL HEROES! Armed forces, Trauma ward surgeons/Drs/nurses, parents sacrificing [low incomes] to raise kids best they can, folk fronting up day after day in mindless mundane jobs just so they can keep home /family together! THEY ARE OUR ‘AUSSIE’ HEROES! Media interviews/programs etc, having national/international importance, urgency even. Are routinely interrupted in Australia, to report on some boring ‘hero’s’ latest misdemeanor injury, selection adinfinitum! Salaries of pro-footballers are obscene! Ditto: Managers myriad other honchos, boffins + assorted ‘hangers on.’ Diversion of ratepayers/taxpayers $’s into building, maintaining + then extending for example, Geelong Football Club stadium + associated social mega $ earning FOR SAID CLUB! Is ‘Sherriff of Nottingham’ stuff! Geelong hospital: huge cut backs in beds, staff. Big increase in operation waiting times. No debate, referendum! City Greater Geelong + State Government regularly throw ratepayer/ taxpayers $’s at GFC: Stuff democracy, they appear to say! GFC’s one example: multiply this fact by every AFL/ pro rugby/soccer club in Australia. Imagine if these billions were redirected: hospitals/ education/ schools/ roads/ ambulance+ fire brigade/ apprenticeship schemes/ police force/ research + development etc. We would be a much better Australia. There’s votes for *local/state/federal ‘pollies’ in sport + a Ceasar said “Give’m beer and circuses.” Worked for him + does for them.

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