30th November 2016

Clean Sport Collective: Hitting dopers in the pocket

The Clean Sport Collective aims to pioneer a new approach to anti-doping, by making athletes and brands financially responsible for clean sport. Andy Brown spoke to Shanna Burnette, President and Co-Founder about how the initiative is intended to work.

One of the perennial problems with anti-doping is that it pays to dope, both physiologically and financially. Doping to win pays, as athletes who dope are more powerful and stronger than they would be naturally. Even if an athlete is caught and serves a sanction for doping, an argument exists that they have benefited from artificial enhancement of their physiological condition whilst under the effects of the substances they have taken, leading to a long-term advantage when competing against athletes who have never doped. This is why many athletes support life bans for those who are proven to have intentionally doped.

Even if an athlete is banned for life for doping, the resulting books, television appearances and speaker engagements can be a nice little earner. As Olympic gold medal winner Nicole Cooke has previously told The Sports Integrity Initiative, former athletes such as Lance Armstrong, Tyler Hamilton and Geneviève Jeanson continue to profit from telling their story.

For example, Canadian cyclist Lyne Bessette was robbed of victories by Jeanson, who admitted using erythropoietin (EPO) throughout her career. Bessette explained that Jeanson had won whilst she came second and that while she was earning C$80,000 for a couple of years at the peak of her career, Jeanson was making C$400,000 per year. Bessette argued that by making a film (La Petite Reine), Jeanson is being allowed to steal from cyclists with integrity for a second time. ‘I can’t help thinking that the cheats win on the way up and the way down’, wrote Cooke in her retirement statement. Apart from the moral victory gained through competing clean, it pays in every way to dope.

Sponsors

When the US Department of Justice (DoJ) issued a 161-page, 47-count indictment against nine current and former FIFA officials on 20 May last year, The Sports Integrity Initiative asked all six of FIFA’s partners for their reaction. Only Visa responded, although this position slowly changed and by December, five of the six were calling for change at FIFA.

When Maria Sharapova was caught doping through tests conducted at the Australian Open, the reaction was somewhat different. Many sponsors almost immediately suspended their relationship with the tennis star, however racquet manufacturer Head took a different approach.

‘In the absence of any evidence of any intent by Maria of enhancing her performance or trying to gain an unfair advantage through the use of mildronate, we further conclude this falls into the category of ‘honest’ mistakes’, read a statement from the company (PDF below). ‘Furthermore, we question WADA’s decision to add Meldonium to its banned substances list in the manner it did; we believe the correct action by WADA would have been to impose a dosage limitation only. In the circumstances we would encourage WADA to release scientific studies which validates their claim that Meldonium should be a banned substance.’

The wrong message

The Clean Sport Collective, which launched on 2 November, believes that continued sponsor support for dopers and financial rewards for notoriety sends the wrong message to young athletes. It is a message that it hopes to change.

“It is important to set an example to children”, says Shanna Burnette, President and Co-Founder of the Clean Sport Collective. “If you are caught doping, do you get a slap on the wrist, or do you lose all of your sponsorship money? For future generations, we need to set an example, and brands do have the power to end doping if they want to. The backlash that Head received on Twitter illustrated this. Yes, brands do fund athletes, but amateur athletes are the ones that make the vast majority of purchases. When they speak, they put a measure of accountability to the brand.”

The Clean Sport Collective plans to make both athletes and brands accountable for doping by hitting them where it hurts – in the pocket. Athletes can join if they pledge to race clean and be advocates for clean sport. Plus, if they ever do tests positive, they must agree to donate US$25,000 to the Clean Sport Collective. Brands must also agree to drop an athlete if that athlete tests positive – and over 40 brands have signed up.

“There’s a call for action to brands and events to have harder lines and to take a stance on who they are supporting and giving money to”, explains  Burnette. “This is so that we’re not only talking about dopers, who steal the headlines from clean athletes who are doing things the right way through hard work and dedication, every day.”

“The Clean Sport Collective is designed to be a call to action for a brand”, continues Burnette. “Athletes are raising their voice so that brands can show a little bit of social responsibility. We reached out to brands from the beginning with objectives about what we wanted to accomplish. About 40 brands so far have signed our pledge. Brooks [US running brand] was an early adopter, as were a few others. They signed the brand pledge to say that they would not sponsor anyone who has ever tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. But that’s only the first step.”

Pressure to perform is often identified as one of the reasons that pushes an elite athlete towards doping. If an athlete feels that they will lose sponsorship money or financial support if they are not up to standard, that pressure to dope is magnified.

“Part of our programme for raising funding is the Clean Sport Certification”, explains Burnette. “That entails a technical advisor coming in to take a look at not only the athletes on their roster, but also how the contracts are structured. For example, contracts which have a reduction for lack of performance can make athletes feel pressured to perform. They will also look at best practices moving forward if an athlete does test positive.”

Testing positive: $25,000 penalty

One of the difficulties with doping is that it is not quite as black and white as people often think. When asked about appropriate bans for doping, the knee-jerk reaction from most athletes is that they would support a life ban for any doping. However, when you ask further questions, most agree that they would not support a life ban for an athlete that has consumed a contaminated supplement, or an athlete that has tested positive after being given a drink by their coach at half time.

This knee-jerk reaction is understandable. ‘Performance-enhancing’ has become such a loaded term that many assume that it equates doping. It doesn’t. Most things that athletes do are performance-enhancing, such as sleeping, eating and training.

At Tacking Doping in Sport 2013, Athlete Ombudsman for the US Olympic Committee (USOC) John Ruger admitted that between 40% and 60% of US doping cases are inadvertent – i.e. non-intentional. It therefore becomes problematic if a blanket US$25,000 fine is applied to athletes who never intended to dope in the first place. Such athletes may have a legitimate case in refusing to pay the fee.

It is a difficult line to navigate. Many athletes take a number of supplements as part of their ordinary training regime. If one of the ingredients in one of the supplements makes it onto the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) Prohibited List that year, does that athlete then become a ‘doping cheat’? There is no doubt that they are taking the substance to enhance their performance, but does the fact that it was allowed in one year and prohibited in another make them liable for a financial penalty? This issue was brought into sharp focus with the madness that resulted from meldonium’s addition to the Prohibited List at the start of this year.

Burnette clarifies that an athlete would have to be convicted of an anti-doping rule violation (ADRV) for the $25,000 fine to apply. However, she also adds that it is up to the athlete to take a certain amount of responsibility for their actions when they sign the Clean Sport Pledge as well.

“It would have to be a proven ADRV”, she explains. “It would not be escrow until findings are complete. We are not out for a witch-hunt, but we do want to put accountability at the front end. We don’t want everybody just signing the pledge – we wanted to put a deterrent there to make it clear that there will be consequences. We are also outlining consequences for brands. We want them to hold athletes to consequences of doping, so we need to do the same. A lot of adverse analytical findings are inadvertent analytical findings, but they also have to take responsibility when they sign the pledge as well.”

Support

Anybody who believes in clean sport can become a member of the Clean Sport Collective – which makes the venture a potentially huge project. “We wanted to raise awareness with athletes and we also wanted to give a voice to everybody, so that it’s not just about professional athletes, but amateur athletes, fans, event organisers, trainers, coaches, medical professionals and more as well”, says Burnette. “It is intended to give them the power to change the rhetoric to talk about clean athletes doing things the right way.”

Such a project requires financial support, and this raises the thorny issue of the fact that plagues so many anti-doping organisations – that they only exist because the doping problem persists. However, the Clean Sport Collective is not planning to exist on the back of a series of $25,000 payments from athletes that have failed a doping test.

“All the board members volunteer their time and we are funded through public donations”, says Burnette. “That will change as we move forward as our funding objectives will change. At a recent board meeting, it was agreed that we need to raise a certain amount of money to fund different objectives in each of the four lanes of positive change that are outlined on our internet site. Our first goal was to launch, and then find partners. We are starting to establish those partners, which are charity organisations rather than brands. Everybody signs the charter as a member, but everybody that we want to work with are organisations or charities, or partners that we want to help fund. These partners can be in testing, industry advocacy, awareness education – especially youth education – and restoration. We will choose one or two organisations to partner with, as well as the amount that we need to help fund these different initiatives.”

Athlete support

The Clean Sport Collective has managed to secure support from a number of elite US athletes already – which is certain to raise its profile. These include Kara Goucher, Alysia Montaño, Emma Coburn, Jenny Simpson and Jeremy Powers. Some of these athletes are no strangers to doping. In June last year, Goucher alleged that whilst at the Nike Oregon Project, she was encouraged to take thyroid drug Cytomel to help her lose baby weight in 2011. Montaño also has strong views on doping, having stated that knowing her competitors were doping inspired her to carry on competing, and competing clean.

That was not an accident. “Obviously, they have a very strong voice about clean sport”, explains Burnette. “From the very beginning, we reached out to a couple of athletes to get their feedback about what they wanted to see happen around clean sport. We listened to what they’ve been through, what they want to change, and what hope looks like for them. They are similar to a focus group for us.”

Conclusion

The 2016 year appears to have been a watergate moment for anti-doping. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is attempting to take back control of anti-doping from an organisation which it had hoped would be its subsidiary when it was created at the World Conference on Doping in Sport in 1999. Meanwhile that organisation, WADA – which was initially funded entirely by the IOC – is attempting to consolidate its power.

Both are attempting to do this by creating ever more lengthly and complicated rules, standards, regulations, testing/retesting procedures and Codes. Perhaps the time has come for a simpler approach. You dope, you pay. At the moment, if you are clean, you pay and if you dope, you profit. Anti-doping’s regulators have to take some of the blame for creating the environment where such a situation has been allowed to develop. Perhaps it’s time for a breath of fresh air.

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