News 10th March 2016

TDIS 2016 Day Two: Sport must re-engage with athletes

Sport has developed a system that deters athletes from coming forward and engaging with anti-doping initiatives, heard delegates at Day Two of Tackling Doping in Sport at Twickenham Stadium near London. David Millar, who returned to professional cycling after being banned for two years in 2004, said that bodies such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) need to come down from their “ivory towers” and re-engage with sport’s participants.

“If governance is not acting, then you lose the hearts and minds of the athletes”, he said. “And they lose their moral compass. Russia lost the hearts and minds of the athletes some time ago”.

Millar accused sport’s governing bodies of being in the “dark ages” and said that bodies such as the IOC should better subsidise anti-doping in order to ensure that some countries – he used Kenya as an example – are no longer “off the grid”. Picking up on a theme from yesterday, Millar said that a percentage of sports sponsorship deals should go towards policing against doping.

Scaring athletes away

Millar also said that the strict liability principle applicable under the current anti-doping system was putting athletes off, as to come forward with information might mean an instant four-year ban. This theme was picked up by Mike Morgan of Morgan Sports Law, who represents athletes. He spoke about how provisions within the World Anti-Doping Code, which allow athletes to potentially reduce a sanction for providing assistance to anti-doping bodies, provide no guarantee to the athlete that they will be respected.

“In my experience, substantial assistance has not been great so far”, he said. “I just don’t know what will happen when I argue substantial assistance […] ADOs [anti-doping organisations] openly tell me that they don’t like the idea of substantial assistance […] once the genie is out of the bottle, the athlete has no guarantee.”

Morgan said that whilst it may be “totally unpalatable” to reduce a sanction for a high-profile doper, ADOs needed to “take a long term view” that reducing a ban in a high profile case may encourage more people to come forward. He also highlighted the Code’s failure to take into account that sometimes, information on how an athlete may have doped is far more valuable than information they can provide about others.

Code issues

It also appears that the new family pet is not behaving as instructed. In an interesting interactive session, delegates were invited to submit comments and suggestions on how the 2015 Code works in practice by two researchers writing a commentary on the Code – Marjolaine Viret and Emily Wisnosky of the University of Neuchâtel.

The international volleyball federation (FIVB) said that under the Code, it is required to devote 5% of its tests to erythropoietin (EPO), despite the blood booster having no history of use in volleyball; SportAccord said that in some countries the requirement to test for human growth hormone (HGH) could not be fulfilled due to restrictions on the use and transport of blood; a requirement to implement additional rules on doping control personnel doesn’t appear to have been defined or implemented; and more.

It also emerged that the Code is not understandable to athletes, who often instruct advisers or support personnel to read it. A gulf was also identified between the larger and richer countries in world sport, who have the inclination and the money to arbitrate cases and argue the athlete’s case, and smaller countries who sometimes may just slap a four-year ban on an athlete whatever the circumstances of use might be. It was highlighted that in smaller countries, there are often discussions about “if” doping should be tackled, not “how”.

Ignoring athlete mental health

It also emerged that the anti-doping system can often ignore the personal circumstances of athletes in its keenness to impose a sanction and demonstrate that the system is working. A rugby player seeking help for personal issues was told “there is no place for the weak minded”, said Richard Bryan of the Rugby Players Association. He said that this attitude can push players towards self-medicating. In rugby, 60% of player issues are stress related and addiction is the least-referred disorder (excluding gambling).

It emerged that certain sports will sometimes announce the results of a positive test without revealing the circumstances, which can cause confusion amongst the public. Such a situation occurred in the case of Jake Livermore, who was suspended by Hull City after testing positive for cocaine, prompting a public backlash. It later emerged that he had turned to the drug following the death of his new-born son.

Conclusion

It appears that the athlete perception is that the governing bodies of sport are not engaged with athletes in any meaningful way, and an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion prevents them from coming forward with useful information. It appears that athletes now believe sports governing bodies are more concerned with protecting the image of the sport they represent, rather than the athletes – for commercial interests. And this needs to change.

“A disciplinary panel that is established under the auspices of a sport can never be truly independent”, argued Morgan. “Sport, at a national or international level, shouldn’t be adjudicating their own doping cases anymore. It just doesn’t work.”

All of the above are perhaps reasons why the IOC plans a truly independent anti-doping agency. Yesterday, WADA President Sir Craig Reedie told delegates that a full stakeholder consultation into how such a body could operate would be launched at its meeting in Strasbourg on 3 and 4 May. Today, the IOC’s Christian Thill told delegates that “how and why” the agency is established is perhaps more important than the timeline, but the IOC expects the new agency to be operational within five years.

• Tackling Doping in Sport is organised by World Sports Law Report and UK Anti-Doping (UKAD). A review of Day One of Tackling Doping in Sport is available by clicking here.

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