25 August 2017

INDR Conference: ‘natural’ sport does not equate ‘clean’ sport

The main message from Day One of the International Network of Doping Research (INDR) Conference in Aarhus yesterday is that the trend to draw a line under a period of doping in elite sport does not diffuse debate about whether sport is ‘clean’. Academics also presented research illustrating how doping has permeated normal society as a way of achieving a perceived ideal of the human physique, and even as a way of deflecting past trauma by providing a focus on measurable goals.

“Sport is not about equality”, opened Professor Sigmund Loland of the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences. “It is about measuring a particular type of inequality”. This idea is important when considering the idea of a ‘level playing field’, which is often put forward by sport as a justification for banning performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). Can a ‘level playing field’ alone be used as justification for banning certain substances?

Loland is examining the the concept of natural athletic performance, and whether it illuminates the discussion about where to draw the line regarding use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). He argues that the debate around the use of PEDs is framed around the idea of natural performance, and not extending that performance through artificial means. He argues that banning PEDs can be justified using this method, as they bypass the slow, systemic adaption of the physiology that comes from training.

However, he argues that operative challenges present themselves when considering developments such as hypoxic chambers, which can induce effects similar to erythropoietin (EPO). It could be argued that both are attempts to bypass the idea of natural performance, however only one is banned.

The problems around polarising sport through its labelling were discussed by April Henning of Brooklyn College. Henning argued that the label ‘clean sport’ insinuates a direct opposite, ‘dirty sport’, which polarises the way in which we think about doping. Henning argued that these labels are often applied to an era within sport, which further politicises the debate around doping.

This labelling creates further problems regarding therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs), as can an athlete who has been granted a TUE for a prohibited substance accurately be labelled ‘clean’? This debate has been thrown into sharp relief by media coverage of some of the TUEs illegally accessed by Fancy Bears.

However, alternative terms are also problematic, heard delegates. ‘Honest’ sport creates the polar opposite, ‘Dishonest’ sport. There was much debate about whether an athlete would prefer the label ‘dirty’ or ‘dishonest’. It could be argued that some athletes – for example Therese Johaug – would accept neither.

Henning pointed out that performance-based sponsorship structures can push athletes to dope. For example, many sponsors withhold money from athletes if they do not perform to specified standards.

Marcel Reinold of Münster University is examining whether the autobiographies of cyclists can be used to understand motives, attitudes and perceptions about doping. Reinold has identified certain similarities within the autobiographies.

Self-admitted dopers generally claim that it is not possible to succeed without doping. Dopers who claim not to have doped claim that success is possible without doping. Reinold has found that self-admitted dopers go into great narrative detail so as to explain the rationale behind their decisions, whereas dopers who claim not to have doped avoid going into detail. Dopers who claim not to have doped express no moral outrage at doping, yet do express moral outrage against those who break the rules in areas other than doping.

Under Article 5.8.3 of the World Anti-Doping Code, anti-doping organisations (ADOs) now have an obligation to investigate information that may indicate an anti-doping rule violation (ADRV). However, Reinold was sceptical about whether autobiographies could be used as an indicator as to whether an athlete is telling the truth regarding doping.

This theme was expanded upon by Morten Sandvik of the Norwegian School of Sports Sciences, who is examining the athlete’s dilemma of whether or not to confess to doping. As might be expected, the picture is a complicated one. Sandvik outlined how the confessing athlete will unload a burden and is likely to receive a boost to self esteem, but also must consider the potential backlash due to public anti-doping vitriol, which could affect not just the doper, but also their family.

Sandvik highlighted how in his autobiography, Tyler Hamilton felt compelled to tell the whole story behind his decision to dope in order to rationalise it in the eyes of the public. He pointed out that confessing to ‘outsiders’ is often more of a problem for athletes than the confession itself, as athletes often view doping as a meaningful practice in terms of the situation they find themselves in.

This relationship between athletes and those outside of their inner circle was referred to by Danish journalist Lars B. Jorgensen, who argued that social media has undermined the relationship between cycling and the media. He argued that riders and teams no longer have a close relationship with the media, as they can reach their supporters through social networks. This has created an atmosphere of mistrust between the media and elite cycling.

“Athletes don’t want negative journalism, and doping is very, very negative”, said Jorgensen. “I sometimes feel let down by ADOs”.

The move towards ‘natural’ bodybuilding was examined by Dimitrios Liokaftos of Aarhus University. He explained that ‘natural’ bodybuilding emerged in the 1970s as a response to heavy use of doping substances within bodybuilding. However, the new movement was not without its critics, who argue that ‘natural’ bodybuilders are lying about their substance use.

The ‘gym culture’ perhaps epitomised in bodybuilding also appears to have permeated general society, heard delegates. Ingrid Havnes of Oslo University is studying the use of anabolic steroids by 14 women, and has found that there are similarities between the motivations for use. These were to gain muscle and reduce body fat quickly.

Havnes also found that the 14 women had certain social background similarities, and were often welcoming some of the negative side effects associated with steroid usage, such as lack of empathy, isolation, agitation, anger. For people with a traumatic background, Havnes argued, this was often seen as a benefit, as it allowed the user to focus on sleeping, eating and training only.

Pascal Borry of the University of Leuven, Belgium, has examined whether athletes have a right to data collected as part of the Athlete Biological Passport (ABP) programme operated through the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). He concluded that they do have a right to the data, but not in a way that compromises the anti-doping system.

Borry proposed a system where data is disclosed using a delayed process that does not reveal the algorithms behind the ABP. He also warned that there would be pressure on athletes to share their ABP data with journalists, as has been seen in the case of Mo Farah and other athletes.

Andy Brown, Editor of The Sports Integrity Initiative, also examined the addition of meldonium to the Prohibited List at the start of 2016, and the lessons that can be learned from this. Brown explained that due to changes in the World Anti-Doping Code meaning that an athlete is now guilty until they can prove that they are innocent, many athletes that did not intend to cheat are now being sanctioned – especially amateur athletes. This is problematic for athletes when a substance – such as meldonium – is added to the List without proper scientific evaluation, or without information being properly distributed to athletes.

Brown argued that the vagueness inherent in the Prohibited List needs to change so that athletes know where they stand. Otherwise, amateur athletes will continue to be heavily sanctioned in the name of the public anti-doping crusade, whilst elite athletes who have the resources to argue down their sanctions will escape with shorter bans.


There are lessons for ADOs in the papers presented at the INDR conference. There was a general consensus that athletes are not equal, so sport should step away from the ‘level playing field’ rhetoric. The idea that sport can draw a line under an era and start anew was also critiqued, as there cannot be any certainty that a sport in now ‘clean’. This is particularly relevant considering European Athletics’ plan to draw a line under records on the track.

It also appears that the physique ideals put forward by bodybuilding have permeated society in general, as well as the shortcuts used to gain that physique. This should concern ADOs, who could find their role expanded beyond sport into dealing with a wider societal issue.

• A summary of tweets from Day One of the INDR Conference is available here. The programme for Day Two is available here, and a summary will follow.

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