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

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW