SII Focus 6 June 2016

Opinion: Issues faced by critical academics in anti-doping

On 2 June I was removed from my position as Chair of the USA Cycling (USAC) Anti-Doping Committee. This was a voluntary role, for a newly formed committee. I had spent several hours on Skype in preparation for setting up the committee, including helping to decide upon the membership and discussing various aspects of the anti-doping education, testing and appeals system. I had been invited onto the committee on the basis that I had researched US cycling cases, helped undertake a survey of doping prevalence and had a wider sense of perspective on the history, development and challenges in global anti-doping. Never at any stage was I told that belonging to the Committee meant that I could no longer raise questions about the system and its impacts.

The reason cited by USA Cycling for its decision was that I had made public ‘comments advocating the legalisation of certain doping practices [which] made it clear that he does not share our fundamental views regarding eliminating doping from sport through the rigorous application of well-established anti-doping efforts’.

Academics and anti-doping

The comments had been made in an interview with The Times, published on 27 May. The headline they initially used placed an unfortunate over-emphasis on specific details: ‘Legalise drugs and allow blood doping, says sports expert’. My reaction was to phone the newspaper, who admitted this was a misrepresentation, changing it to ‘Anti-doping adviser makes case for legalising drugs and blood transfusions’ (on their website). However, the first headline reached the senior management of USA Cycling, who decided to cancel the inaugural Committee meeting which was due to take place that same day.

Various emails and telephone conversations took place before they made the public announcement. I wrote a defence of the quotes, arguing that my position is simply to ask questions about how and why drugs and procedures are banned. I have not taken a stance to legalise or encourage doping. Why would I volunteer to Chair an anti-doping committee if my motivation was to undermine its very purpose?

However, I can relate to the dilemma faced by USAC. They have a large membership and a public relations issue like this can provoke a lot of heated debate. On the surface, it does look like they had appointed the wrong person. Maybe they had no alternative but to fire me. However, it does encapsulate the delicate balance many researchers in this field are facing when they try to bring their evidence and analysis to policy-making organisations.

An International Network of Humanistic Doping Research (INHDR) conference last year led to a series of commentaries on this very question. The CEO of Anti-Doping Denmark, Michael Ask, outlined a number of recommendations, including: ‘it is an obligation for academics constantly to challenge the way we work and examine whether we work efficiently. Such challenges should be addressed with a focus on constructive dialogue and input for alternative ways to improve the system. The only way to achieve that is through serious research-based knowledge and objective analysis’. He also reminded academics that people working within anti-doping are committed to ‘clean sport’. The co-managers of INHDR, John Gleaves and Ask vest Christiansen, wrote a detailed commentary outlining the potential ways that academics could work alongside anti-doping more productively. In part, they argue, this requires respect from both parties:

‘Academics can certainly do a better job inviting the administrators to share in the academic field but administrators appear far more reluctant to invite academics to their side. Only a handful of academics, who hold positions closely aligned with anti-doping positions, have found a seat at the anti-doping table. Critical but highly respected scholars, on the other hand, are mostly absent. If the two sides are going to work effectively together, anti-doping administrators cannot cherry-pick the academics they wish to work with.’

‘A larger number of specialists, some of whom say they are backed by athletes, would like to see the system overhauled to allow for more medical research, use of technology, and respect for athletes’ rights and privacy. But they are too scared to speak out publicly for fear of appearing to condone drugs.’

Clean sport and critical dialogue

When Derek Bouchard-Hall took over as CEO of USA Cycling last year, he announced a plan to widen testing to non-elite cyclists. I had worked with his predecessor to undertake a prevalence survey, and had co-written a review of all sanctioned cycling cases. What had piqued my interest was the various cases of amateur and masters athletes being caught doping. In the published article (which is publicly available), we criticised the extent to which athletes were being punished for using genuinely required medical drugs, but analysed the motivations of those using methods clearly designed to help them improve performance. We asked the question of how a testing system for amateurs could effectively distinguish between these, and whether the World Anti-Doping Code was the best system for a non-elite testing programme.

When I contacted Mr Bouchard-Hall in October 2015, I proposed that my contribution could include helping to develop the education processes, and undertaking relevant research. In May 2016, I submitted an application to the IOC’s anti-doping research fund in order to evaluate the impact of rolling out education and testing to non-elite US cyclists. I had never imagined my role to be a 100% clean sport guru, or that offering my services would implicitly entail an assumption that I could no longer openly ask questions about the nature of anti-doping policy.

I was surprised when the invitation to become Chair was offered. I am currently the Chair of a local charity, so have some experience in that type of role. I assume the Chair to take a balanced account of the members’ views, to help organise the meetings, assure everyone has a voice and to assist (not overly influence) decision-making. The other members of the committee were recruited through existing networks and an invitation was sent to all its members asking for volunteers. It was to be a diverse group. Indeed, in the statement announcing my removal, Mr. Bouchard-Hall said: ‘we welcome dissenting opinion within our committee […] We fully respect Dr. Dimeo’s right to challenge the system and as an academic, it is important that he does. We in fact knew he often challenged the status quo’.

In light of the INHDR debate, this situation does not reflect well on the potential partnerships between academics and anti-doping bodies, unless the former agrees to accept and promote the system in its current form. I would, however, say that WADA have never tried to interfere with any of the five projects it has funded which I have worked on. No-one in WADA has ever asked me to refrain from speaking publicly about any critical issues. Perhaps the role of researcher is more clearly defined: I have never been invited to join a WADA committee or speak at one of its conferences.

Clean sport is the central message within anti-doping. Critical researchers complicate matters. My quotes in The Times were another way of articulating the complex issues around health, drugs and sport. One excerpt is: ‘What made sense [in the 1960s] is no longer viable, practically or idealistically. We now live in a world of technology, commerce and performance, where drugs could be safely used for recovery and performance if only the rules were relaxed’. I do admit that this runs contrary to the message of clean sport as we know it today. My point, however, was that clean sport is a construction that has developed over time without pause for reflection on how the wider world has changed. People can access drugs more easily, can learn about them in an instant on the internet, and sport has become much more scientific. The ideal of the natural athlete is an anachronism. Meanwhile, testing has not stopped athletes from doping. Given these circumstances, alongside the cases of relatively innocent athletes being sanctioned, maybe there is a better way of approaching all this.

These are hardly new insights; academic work for over two decades within the social sciences has explored a much wider range of themes to challenge the assumptions that underpin anti-doping. And academics are a diverse group, ranging from anti-doping supporters to those who have argued for complete de-regulation. The harms and unintended consequences of anti-doping are often lost in the public furore around systematic cheating. There is important work to be done, and I personally think anti-doping organisations would benefit from listening to critics.


If collectively we are not careful, the academics-policy division will just solidify and worsen. Any sort of ‘us versus them’ situation leads to simplification and caricatures. Academics might say some uncomfortable things about anti-doping, but very few want an end to all form of regulation. However, I think my take-home message from the past few days is that individuals working within anti-doping need to accept that engaging with academics might require defending them in public. The USAC might have ignored the over-reaction to The Times story, or simply stated that I am a researcher who promotes objective debate, which is a healthy part of civilised society, and which does not disrupt the work of the Committee. Indeed, different perspectives might have led to innovation. Instead, I have been cast in the role of villain and my reputation damaged. I would be careful to work with any anti-doping organisation now; I would certainly be much more cautious about the terms of engagement. My work will continue, as will that of the USAC Anti-doping Committee. Perhaps once the dust settles we can work together again, on the basis of a better understanding of what I (and others like me) can offer.

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