Graded punishment system could improve anti-doping in sport

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Introducing a points-based grading system to punish athletes caught doping could revolutionise the approach to tackling drugs in sport, experts have said. 

Academics say that, unlike the current system, the innovative approach would improve transparency and consistency by ensuring sanctions reflect the type of offence committed, the level at which the athlete is competing, and the extent of their anti-doping education.

The suggestion is among a number of recommendations for radical reform contained in a new book by respected anti-doping experts, Dr Paul Dimeo, of the University of Stirling; and Professor Verner Møller, of Aarhus University in Denmark.

‘The Anti-Doping Crisis in Sport’ provides a detailed critique of the serious problems in the approach developed and implemented by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), including continued ineffectiveness of the testing system, the growing number of dubious convictions, and damaging human-rights issues.

An image of Dr Paul Dimeo

Dr Paul Dimeo, of the University of Stirling, has suggested a new approach to tackling drugs in sport.

The book warns that, without a “total rethink” of the issue, sport could be facing the collapse of anti-doping, both as a policy and an ideology. It examines the reasons for the crisis, the consequences of policy strategies and explores potential solutions.

Transparency

The points-based system would mirror legal processes used to sentence drugs cases in England and Wales. It would involve defining categories of athlete; determining offence categories; outlining punishments and any factors that may lead to a reduction in sentence, including providing information on suppliers.

In defining categories of athlete, the authors suggest differentiating by age; level of anti-doping education; financial resource; and the sports medicine support received by the individual. They say this approach will protect young, inexperienced athletes; those who have received little or no anti-doping education; and those who play sport for fun, while coming down harder on professional, experienced athletes who dope.

The system would then score each of the categories, with the cumulative score determining the level of punishment executed in a transparent and consistent framework.

Although Dr Dimeo and Professor Møller acknowledge their proposal may appear “complex and bureaucratic”, they say: “If the purpose is fairness, proportionality, humanity, transparency and consistency, then there is no reason to avoid complexity and debate.

An image of Professor Verner Møller

Professor Verner Møller, of Aarhus University in Denmark, co-authored the book with Dr Dimeo.

“Anti-doping should be constructed to serve the interests of athletes, not to make life easier for WADA, the International Olympic Committee and other powerful sports institutions.” 

They add: “If WADA can concede there is a need for change, we propose the above as an initial launching point for discussions, but with the insistence that these discussions are not held behind closed doors. Athletes, sponsors, clubs, doctors, lawyers, managers, fans and journalists should all be allowed to contribute to a democratic and just system.

“Moreover, if such a system can be successfully implemented in the British judicial system and in other sports regulations, there seems no reason why it cannot be used for anti-doping purposes, and might be extended to include more specific guidelines for athlete support personnel and suppliers.”

Dr Dimeo and Professor Møller also consider a number of alternative radical reforms, including a return to amateur sport to “reinvigorate the Olympic spirit” and remove the lure of prize money, endorsement deals and lucrative contracts.

“Anyone who immediately refutes the idea of returning to amateur sport should bear in mind that, in the first half of the twentieth century, it was normal that sport was played for the love of the game whereas professional athletes were considered pariahs,” they write.

Moreover, they show that anti-doping ideas emerged during a period when amateurism was more common and that ‘clean sport’ was expected of amateurs but not of professionals. Alternatively, a system of salary caps to reduce financial incentives could be introduced in order to address the motivations to dope, rather than simply focus on testing and banning athletes after they have doped.

The academics also suggest discarding therapeutic use exemptions and ensuring that athletes can only consult WADA-accredited medical staff to prevent athletes falsely claiming they suffer from diseases that allows them to use a performance-enhancing drug. They say that discarding the system would “improve equality, fair play and health”.

Chaperone

The introduction of a 24-hour-a-day chaperone for professional athletes is also an idea mooted by Dr Dimeo and Professor Møller. They propose that the only way to achieve an all-encompassing policy – that no athlete should take any banned drug at any time – is to have an all-encompassing solution.

They suggest replacing the current surveillance system – based on unannounced and random target testing – with a direct surveillance system that would make direct doping testing unnecessary.

“The idea is simple. Athletes who, under the current system, are part of the registered testing pool should instead be required to have WADA employed chaperones with them day and night during their career,” they say.

“This solution would make it as good as impossible for athletes to dope and eliminate the problem, at least at elite level.”

While the authors acknowledge concerns about the violation of athletes’ privacy rights, they argue: “This objection is rather weak if it does not take into account the violation of privacy rights already accepted in relation to the current anti-doping system.”

Currently, athletes are closely observed when providing a urine sample; can be tested randomly out of competition anywhere and at any time; need to be chaperoned once a test has been notified until they are ready to urinate; and some have to be in a fixed location for one hour each day to allow testers to find them.

“By contrast, a single house search, a discreet anti-doping bodyguard, and a requirement that visitors should be checked in order to secure no doping products are smuggled to the athlete do not seem to violate the athletes’ privacy any more than the current system does,” the authors add.

The book therefore offers new insights into the problems with anti-doping, as well as some recommendations for future policy changes.

Dr Dimeo is a Senior Lecturer in Sport, in the Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport at Stirling, while Professor Møller is Professor in the Department of Public Health at Aarhus University, Denmark.

The 174-page book, published by Routledge, is available now.

Media enquiries to Greg Christison, Communications Officer, on 01786 466 687 or greg.christison@stir.ac.uk

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