Sport drug testing rules are absurd

Last updated 08:58 18/09/2012
Nadzeya Ostapchuk and Alyksandr Yefimov
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BETTER TIME: Nadzeya Ostapchuk celebrates with her coach Alyksandr Yefimov after the shot put competition at the London Olympics.

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With Valerie Adams set to be awarded her Olympic gold medal in Auckland there is a strong sense in New Zealand that the drug testing system works and justice has been done.

The steroids that were taken by Adam's great rival, Nadzeya Ostapchuk, are currently banned in elite competitive sport.

Yet the reasons for their prohibition outlined in the World Anti-Doping Agency's (Wada) World Anti-Doping Code are absurd, particularly Wada's claim that performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) are contrary to their definition of the spirit of sport.

Wada decides which substances will and will not be banned on the basis that they must meet two out of the following three criteria: They must have the potential to increase sporting performance; represent an actual or potential risk to the athletes health or their use be contrary to the spirit or sport.

This allows athletes to take drugs that are harmful but not performance enhancing or seen as being contrary to the spirit of sport, like tobacco. It also allows athletes to take drugs like caffeine, which enhances performance but isn't considered to be harmful to health or contrary to the spirit of sport.

The wording of point two is particularly devious in the way it is so open: it states that a substance must represent ''an actual or potential risk to health''.

This allows for any substance in existence; too much water can potentially be harmful you. These criteria can be twisted to argue for or against any substance and show the reliance of Wada on the concept of the "spirit of sport", which the decision to ban many substances can hinge.

The Wada code states that the Anti-doping programs seek to preserve what is intrinsically valuable about sport. This intrinsic value is often referred to as "the spirit of sport".

So what then is this all important spirit of sport that PEDs are threatening to rob us of? According to Wada the spirit of sport is characterised by the following values: Ethics, fair play and honesty, health, excellence in performance, character and education, fun and joy, teamwork, dedication and commitment, respect for rules and laws, respect for self and other participants, courage and community and solidarity.

But do PEDs really threaten the preservation of these values? If you take a look at each point it isn't clear that any of these buzz-words is contrary to their use.


Firstly, do PEDs threaten to remove ethics, fair play and honesty from sport? There are many substances that athletes are allowed to take which are either harmful to them or performance enhancing that aren't banned by Wada.

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Indeed there are many ethically questionable practices that exist in sport that aren't banned.

Is it ethical for children as young as five to be trained fulltime to become elite athletes in gymnastics, tennis players, weightlifting and many other sports? Not only does it rob them of anything that could be described as a normal childhood but such practices could be compared to child labour.

Yet there aren't calls for regulations of such treatment or bans of it on ethical grounds. So ethically performance enhancement in itself doesn't seem to be a problem for Wada, and indeed the issue of ethical practices aren't traditional concerns for sport in general.

As for fair play and honesty, anti-PED campaigners argue that allowing PEDs would create unfair pressure on "clean" athletes to use them to keep up. However, this pressure already exists.

All that allowing PEDs would do is make the drugs more open to testing and scrutiny creating a safer environment to use them, which leads us to health.


This is indeed an important issue, however not all PEDs are a threat to health. Australian philosopher Juilian Savulescu argues that rather than testing for PEDs we should be testing for health.

This could provide an answer to the problem as it allows athletes to increase their performance in the safest possible environment. Under this system the health of the athletes would be the main concern and this would surely be beneficial for everyone.

If we were to test for health it would prevent any athlete competing who wasn't physically healthy enough regardless of whether or not they had taken drugs.

The irony of the current system is that it poses a far greater threat to the health of athletes than if PEDs were allowed and we only tested for health. This is due to the fact that the pressure is to make performance enhancers undetectable, rather than safe.

If PEDs were allowed the manufacturers would be able to openly display what was in their products and have them regulated for safety.

Critics to this system may argue that athletes would still dope to unsafe levels and merely take drugs to mask their level of health, which is conceivably possible and athletes may indeed slip through the cracks in the system.

As leading anti-doping campaigner, Professor Benjg Saltin, said in an interview with the BBC in the lead up to the Beijing Olympics: ''I would expect that most of the medal winners and finalists in [Olympic] endurance events to be on performance enhancing drugs.''

So why not work with the athletes and attempt to make a safer environment?

Excellence in performance

It is almost comical that Wada should include this in a list of things that PEDs are supposedly a threat to.

Obviously excellence in performance is the very thing that athletes' taking PEDs are striving to attain.

Indeed many PEDs merely recreate the results of existing training methods. Erythropoietin (EPO) is a hormone that stimulates red-blood cell production which allows more oxygen to be carried to muscles, and thus greatly increases endurance.

Athletes can increase their red blood cell production by training at altitude or by using a hypoxic air machine (a machine that recreates conditions at high altitude), however these methods are relatively expensive compared to a syringe of EPO.

Athletes without the funding to use expensive training methods could get the same results by injecting EPO -  allowing more to achieve excellence in performance.

Character and education

Advocates of the ban will likely argue that sport is about building character and that PEDs are quick fixes that teach athletes they can find instant success inside of a syringe.

This argument is rather naive as athletes would still need to train seven days a week and commit to gruelling fitness regimes; you couldn't merely give Dennis from Accounts an injection and watch him win le Tour de France.

PEDs are a performance aid not a substitute for hard work and training. Education is also a key element to their use, particularly as they become an attractive option to younger and younger athletes.

Young athletes need to be educated in regards to what the chemicals they put into their body are doing to them, in the same way that they are now as to how drugs like alcohol and marijuana affect their bodies.

Fun and joy

While sport in general, particularly for children and at social level, is indeed about the fun and joy one gets from participation, it would once again be naive to assume that at the elite level it is about anything less than performance and victory.

That is not to say that professional athletes don't enjoy what they do, but they would likely enjoy it more if they were able to perform at a greater level than they currently do, PEDs would allow this.

That is not to say that advocates of the ban on PEDs do not feel that the use of enhancers will not affect the joy of children. Some might argue that they must be stamped out because, to the extent that our athletes are role models for our children, doping practices compromise our children's health and safety.

This argument that children will imitate athletes using PEDs because they are their role models is like saying they will become vigilantes because they idolise Batman.

Children are influenced in their actions by their parents and peers. When I was growing up I tried to play football like Ronaldo in the backyard, that doesn't mean I mimicked his six-day a week training schedule, followed his nutritional routine, or went on to have cocaine-fuelled orgies with transvestite prostitutes.

Nor would children necessarily start taking PEDs if their sporting idols were too; at least not until they reached a high enough level of sport.

Team work

It is difficult to see how they threaten team work, for in team sports being faster or stronger is no substitution for strategy and working together.

Some of the greatest exponents of football (arguably the greatest team sport of them all), the Ajax side of the 70s, and the Dynamo Kyiv side of the 60s, who were said to play 'Total football' (a style in which all players on the pitch would interchange positions at any tame, requiring supreme fitness); are accused of using PEDs to give them greater fitness.

Dedication and commitment

As outlined above PEDs aren't a replacement for the dedication and commitment of full time training, merely and aid for it. Indeed you could argue that it is the ultimate dedication to chemically alter your body in pursuit of sporting greatness.

Respect for rules and laws

PEDs only subvert this point as long as PEDs are against the rules and laws. Caffeine used to be banned as it reduced the time to exhaustion by up to 20 per cent . In 2004 Wada saw fit to remove it from its list of prohibited substances, meaning that those who took caffeine were no longer subverting the rules or laws of sport.

Respect for yourself and others

Opponents of PEDs could argue that users do not respect others as they are gaining an unfair advantage, but as mentioned in the previous point, this is only due to the fact that is against the rules, if the rules were to change it would be fair to everyone.

As for "being fair to yourself", if we were to test athletes purely for health it would be much more fair on the athletes as they wouldn't be taking potentially harmful drugs.

Anti-PED campaigners Leon Kass and Eric Cohen use the argument that PEDs aren't respectful to others in regards to past records. Kass and Cohen's argument refers to the recent scandal in Major League Baseball surrounding Barry Bonds passing Babe Ruth's all time home run record.

Their argument is that Bonds taking anabolic steroids sullies his record as he has an advantage over past players and they aren't on a level playing field.

It is true the historical playing field isn't even, but if you wanted an even playing field you would have to take away modern bat-making technology, modern training regimes, nutritional programmes, coaching, sports medicine, bio-mechanical analysis, and many other integral parts of the modern game.

Sport is ever evolving as technology evolves and the use of performance enhancing drugs is the next step in this evolution.

Even in the modern era there isn't a level playing field as athletes are born with different genetic make-ups which give them different strengths and weaknesses. PEDs allow strengths to be built on and deficiencies reduced, arguably making the playing field more even than a world without PEDs.


In the current climate it takes a lot of courage to take a substance that could be harmful as it has been designed to be undetectable not to be safe, not to mention the courage of potentially experiencing a lengthy ban for taking PEDs, being labelled a "cheat" and being ostracised from a sport you've taken been in your whole life.

Community and solidarity

This, like fun and joy, is something which is an important part of sport.

However, at the top level of sport, where beating your opposition is everything and you're taught to hold the mentality that your opponent is your enemy, PEDs aren't a threat to community or solidarity; the nature of win at all costs competition is. And while athletes are taught that winning is the ultimate goal PEDs should be allowed to assist them to these ends.

It may seem that I am arguing for allowing performance enhancing drugs in sport, that is certainly not the case.

What I am intending to show is that if we are to ban them then a better set of guidelines and a better formulation of the spirit of sport is required than the reasons Wada currently gives for banning substances.

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