SII Focus 4th May 2017

Athlete protection takes centre stage at Sport Resolutions 2017

The need to do more to protect athletes from the unintended consequences of sport’s pursuit of success and the financial benefits that result from that was the main theme of Sport Resolutions 2017, which took place in London today. The three main themes of the day were sport’s duty of care to athletes; whether doping cheats are still winning in 2017; and a level playing field on gender.

A major topic of debate was European Athletics’ Proposal to rewrite athletics records, which will be considered at the International Association of Athletics Federations’ (IAAF) Council meeting in London on 31 July. “I hope that Seb [Coe] will listen to me and not take away the world records from those who have honestly earned them”, said Dame Mary Peters, who won gold in the 1972 Olympic pentathlon, in which she still holds the world record after it was replaced by the heptathlon in 1981. “My plea today is not to punish the innocent and take away their records, but to get after the cheats”.

The Proposal was labelled as “naive” by former cyclist Tyler Hamilton, on the basis that athletics has no evidential reason to assume that its sport is any cleaner now than it was prior to 2005, when the IAAF began to store samples. The Proposal suggests only recognising records where the athlete has had an acceptable number of doping tests in a year, and where part of the sample connected to that record is stored and made available for retesting for a ten-year period.

As has been previously reported, the ten-year storage aspect of the Proposal would require every record set prior to 2007 to be wiped. Prior to 1 January 2015, the Statute of Limitations under the World Anti-Doping Code was eight years (rather than ten) and due to this, the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) International Standard for Laboratories (ISL) required all athlete samples to be anonymised after eight years. Counting back from 2015, this means that all samples prior to 1 January 2007 would have to be anonymised. Therefore under the Proposal, any records relating to these samples would need to be wiped, as they do not meet the requirement for part of that sample to have been stored for ten years.

Hamilton also emphasised the difficulties encountered by athletes involved in systemic doping in coming forward with a full confession. “The whole truth was just too scary”, he said. “If I told the whole truth in 2004, I don’t know what would have happened to me”. To support his point, he said that during the 1997 Tour de France, there were 210 starters; “I’d be surprised if five were clean”, he said. Issues with coming forward with evidence of doping have been encountered by Russian whistleblowers Yulia and Vitaly Stepanova, Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov and Andrey Dmitriev, all of whom have been forced to flee the country.

Three-time Olympic medalist, Kelly Sotherton, highlighted the pressure that governing bodies are under to produce athletes that win. She argued that sport is financially orientated towards success, with funding removed if medal targets are not met. She pointed out that when she received the news that she would receive her third Olympic medal after Tatyana Chernova was disqualified from the Beijing 2008 Olympics, her mother phoned her in tears. Her Performance Director, Dave Collins, was sacked after failing to achieve medal target which now – due to disqualifications due to doping – would have been met.

“At least I have had my podium moment”, she said. “There are others, such as Goldie Sayers, who will never get that moment back”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the recent detention of footballer Aaron Lennon under the Mental Health Act, mental health of athletes was high on the agenda. Olympic badminton medalist Gail Emms MBE, former Leicester Tigers player Leon Lloyd and London 2012 Olympic swimming medalist Michael Jamieson talked about the emotional impact that retirement from sport can have on athletes. In a moving choice of words, Emms referred to “grieving an identity” after retirement from sport, and said that athletes were not given the chance to grieve for the loss of the major part of their lives.

Lloyd, who has written a book on the issues he faced on retirement from sport, said that he struggled seeing the Leicester Tigers team go on without him. “I wanted them to miss me”, he said, highlighting the pain at seeing somebody else wear “my” shirt. Simon Barker of the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) added that last year, 60 current players and 100 former players were seeing a counsellor.

The duty of care that sport owes to its athletes was a theme explored by Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, who completed a Duty of Care in Sport Report published by the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) on 21 April. The Paralympian medalist said that there are “parts of sport where bullying and intimidation are rife” and that girls who have been sexually assaulted in sport are often reluctant to report the abuse, because it may harm their opportunities in sport and taint their parents’ perception of their experience in sport.

A coach told her that he aimed to “physically and mentally break” an athlete, in order that they could be sure they would give everything during the last ten metres of a race. “Sport has a duty of care to put that athlete back together”, she said. She had also spoken to a 28-year-old who had never booked a flight or hotel room in their life. “What are we doing to our children?” she asked.

It is understood that UK Sport, which is responsible for allocating funding to sport in the UK, is committed to ensuring that the recommendations Baroness Grey-Thompson’s Report are implemented, irrespective of the outcome of the UK General Election on 8 June. “I think that we can get a lot of it through”, said Baroness Grey-Thompson, adding that it would be “naive” to think that every recommendation in the report would be implemented. “I’ve got a really long time to work on this”, she added, pointing out that many members of the House of Lords – the upper house of the UK Parliament – are in their 90s.

An interesting debate took place about how female athletes are still subjected to the equivalent of a sex test, based on whether they appear feminine. Jim Bunting, who represented Dutee Chand in her successful appeal against the validity of the IAAF’s hyperandrogegism regulations, explained that the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) originally began investigating her after complaints that she “ran like a boy”.

Chand was banned in 2014 after the AFI decided that her androgen (testosterone) levels were above the 10 nmol/L permitted by the IAAF’s hyperandrogegism regulations, resulting in her missing the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games. Androgens, including testosterone, are naturally produced in significant – but varying – levels by both men and women.

The CAS suspended the regulations in 2015, ruling that the IAAF ‘has not provided sufficient scientific evidence about the qualitative relationship between enhanced testosterone levels and improved athletic performance in hyperandrogenic athletes […] The IAAF has not established, on the balance of probabilities, that the Hyperandrogenism Regulations apply only to exclude female athlete that are shown to have a competitive advantage of the same order as that of a male athlete.’

The CAS has gave the IAAF until 27 July 2017 to provide scientific evidence to support its Hyperandrogenism Regulations, however no evidence has been presented to date. Whilst the IAAF Regulations seek to impose an upper limit on female athletes, perhaps tellingly, no upper limit has been set for male athletes.

Dr. María José Martínez-Patiño explained that she had successfully challenged her exclusion from the Spanish Olympic team in 1985 on the grounds that she had androgen insensivity syndrome, a condition in which her body does not respond to testosterone, either natural or synthetic. Dr. Martínez-Patiño also pointed out that any women suffering from polycystic ovary syndrome will have elevated testosterone levels, but that does not make them an elite athlete.

If, as testosterone is such an important arbiter of performance as the IAAF argues, then how did Dr. Martínez-Patiño manage to compete to such a high level? As we have highlighted before, scientific evidence suggests that testosterone levels vary amongst individuals and medical issues occur when an individual loses the ability to produce the testosterone their physiology requires. There also appears to be little scientific evidence that natural (endogenous) testosterone levels are any kind of arbiter of sporting performance.

It was also emphasised that the perception of sport as not feminine needs to change. Gail Emms explained that a major newspaper still dresses female athletes in a ball gown when it interviews them following a major win. The difficulties facing female athletes in securing anything approaching equal conditions to their male counterparts was highlighted, as well as major athletes being judged on their appearance rather than their performance. Annamarie Phelps CBE, Chair of British Rowing, pointed out that of 154 national federations in rowing, just four are chaired by women. She argued that sport lags behind the rest of society and is still “centuries” from equality.

New methods of ‘doping’ were also explored. Dr. Lex Mauger of the University of Kent presented research on the improved performance of athletes who had undergone transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). Use of tDCS is currently not banned, but Mauger argued that it meets all three of the requirements for inclusion on WADA’s Prohibited List. The method is currently undetectable and has been explored by Sir Dave Brailsford in his search for the marginal gains he requires to improve performance in cycling.

Research by sports nutritionist Dr. Mayur Ranchordas also showed that a combination of the right amount of caffeine with carbohydrates improved time-trial performances in cycling by minutes. His research showed that the right amount of caffeine enhances performance by between 1% and 4% in elite athletes (more for amateur athletes), which is why 75% of elite athletes use it. Dr. Ranchordas described caffeine gum, which is now available, as a “game changer”, as it can be absorbed in five minutes.

Conclusion

The encouraging message from the Sport Resolutions conference is that athletes are now willing to discuss, debate and fight back against many of the issues that have historically plagued sport. Athletes were for a long time excluded from the debate and were treated as ‘cash cows’ by some unscrupulous sports governing bodies who were keen to feather their nest on the back of somebody else’s achievements.

In the last few years, we have seen many of the issues that sport has long sought to sweep under the carpet all too publicly aired. Athletes have a special gift that they have developed with dedication and commitment, and are pushing for sport to realise that it must treat them with the same dignity with which an athlete nurtures that talent.

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