SII Focus 15 May 2015

Sport needs to take widespread action to protect the athlete

Sport needs to utilise ‘athlete-centred thinking’ and take widespread action to protect the athlete, heard delegates at the inaugural Sport Resolutions conference ‘Integrity and Athlete Welfare: Staying Ahead of the Game’, which took place in London yesterday. Cyclist Nicole Cooke, who took gold in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and Ed Warner, Chairman of UK Athletics, expressed disgust at the way in which sport had handled recent corruption issues. Cooke said that she had seen team mates “hooking up to drips in hotel rooms”, but when she took the evidence to UK Sport’s Drug Free Sport Unit (replaced by UK Anti-Doping in 2009), “they told me, very seriously, that there are a lot of sick athletes. I was disappointed at the lack of action. The right people are not leading the fight against doping.”

Warner said that the possibility of suspending national federations suspected of having been involved in corruption ought to be investigated. “I believe there should be the possibility of suspending a federation if they are found to have been involved in a doping system”, he said. “But there seems to be no appetite for that globally and it seems people are just accepting this and shrugging their shoulders. We see countless examples of people being banned from sport but then they show up at sporting events.”

Delegates heard that the action that sport needs to take includes:
• structural changes to international federations;
• changes to doping tests;
• effective removal of officials from international federations that have been connected to corruption;
• longer bans for athletes who cheat, but also for the coaches, managers and officials who surround them;
• recognition that doping to cheat and a drug problem are not necessarily the same thing, with treatment for athletes that need it;
• better relationships between bookmakers and sport;
• better recognition for athletes who have been cheated out of a medal;
• specific scientific research into how doping substances act on the physiology of elite athletes.


Delegates also heard that changes need to be made to sport’s current reliance regime of testing athletes, which is expensive and ineffective in catching doping cheats. “For too long, anti-doping organisations have been judged on the number of tests that they have conducted”, said David Kenworthy, Chair of UK Anti-Doping (UKAD). “The figures of 1.3% [of tests that come back positive] show that testing is a blunt instrument. It should always be part of our armoury, but not the only weapon in it.” This was later picked up by Jonathan Taylor of Bird & Bird. “I agree that testing is a blunt instrument, but it doesn’t need to be”, he said, outlining the advances that the athlete biological passport (ABP) and the investigative requirements under the 2015 World Anti-Doping Code have made into identifying and prosecuting dopers. “It can be used as a sharp implement”.

Kenworthy said that sporting organisations needed to go further than just testing athletes, by targeting those that surround them. He referred to 16-year old weightlifter Chika Amalaha, who last year was stripped of a 2014 Commonwealth Games gold medal after testing positive. “A 16-year old doesn’t just decide to dope”, said Kenworthy. “Somebody put her up to it”. Kenworthy said that UKAD’s budget last year was £7 million “and going down”. It carried out over 7,000 tests last year, and seven athletes were formally charged. Thirty-eight percent of UKAD’s 2014 tests were targeted, 53% of anti-doping rule violations it investigated were due to intelligence, and 48% of its findings were non-analytical. “A coordinated response is needed”, he said. “Doping is cheating, and cheating is not tolerated in sport”.

Professor Chris Cooper, of the University of Essex, highlighted how the current drugs being used in sport are not fit for purpose, explaining that this could change in the future through the advent of new methods of performance enhancement, including the use of gene doping. “Almost all drugs in sport are designed for medical use – they are designed to make ill people better”, he said. “They have not been designed to make healthy people super”.

He also highlighted how little medical research has been done into the impact that performance-enhancing drugs have on elite athletes – typically, research has only been carried out into the effects that such substances have on ‘normal’ people, or active people. As an example, he highlighted how the first scientific study into whether steroids increased the performance capabilities of ‘normal’ people was not carried out until 1996, eight years after Ben Johnson tested positive for stanozolol at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

Denise Lewis, who took heptathlon gold at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, said that “panic” over injury, sponsorship, money, missing work or other issues could lead athletes down the path towards doping. Cooke said that she would support a longer ban for athletes caught doping, as currently “it pays to dope”. She also questioned whether athletes who have served their ban should be put back into positions within sport, contrasting the fortunes of reformed dopers with those who have been involved with match-fixing. “There are not many dopers who have had their life ruined”, she said. This point was picked up by Jon Taylor, who said that procedures under the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Agenda 2020 to hold a formal medal reallocation ceremony when athletes are caught doping was a good idea, but suggested that convicted dopers should be made to take part – handing the medal over to its rightful owner.


“There is a good argument for one Code, one agency, both public and private, to tackle match-fixing”, said Jon Taylor. Gerard Elias QC of the England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB) and Nigel Mawer of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA) agreed that a coordinated approach is needed to tackle match-fixing, and perhaps the solution to the issue could come through regulation.

“To have betting in India and Asia regulated, so that it becomes accountable, would overcome many of the problems that over the last two or three years cricket has faced in particular”, Elias QC told the Sports Integrity Initiative. “One would have much more knowledge, much more accountability, access to the available evidence and so on. Nigel has talked about some of the ways in which one can get a clue about what is going on in terms of betting patterns and so on and how they then may be reflected back into the UK. But to actually be able to have the specifics and to be able to go to the police in Asia would probably stop much of the unlawful betting, in any event.”

Mawer said that the UK should perhaps follow the current trend towards introducing specific legislation to combat match-fixing. “I was in Copenhagen recently, and they’ve just introduced legislation around match-fixing and building structures to tackle it because of the problems they’ve got”, he said. “They are starting to introduce legislation right across Scandinavia. I’ve changed my position. I thought that legislation in the UK wasn’t necessary, because there are ways and means that you can deal with match-fixing, especially with the Bribery Act. However, what this doesn’t do is highlight the problem, which it would do if you actually make sport the focus of the legislation. I would follow the Australian and Denmark models to introduce actual legislation. Everybody is going down this route – we don’t need it, but it sends a much better message and gives a much better opportunity to share information.”

While both welcomed the Council of Europe initiative on match-fixing, it was felt that this doesn’t go far enough to tackling where the problem actually lies – i.e. Asia. Mawer indicated that traditional religion-based opposition to regulating betting in Asia may be changing. “I spoke at the Indian Chamber of Commerce on the very issue of legalising the markets and regulating betting, and what was focussing their minds is the revenue that can be earned from taxing it”, Mawer told the Sports Integrity Initiative. “That will ultimately prove the catalyst for a regulated market. There is a groundswell now to move towards regulation and taxation. However, how quickly that will happen, or whether it will ever come about, I don’t know. But it’s certainly the way forward. My position is that if we have regulated markets across the world, we can see what is happening, and we can also see who is doing what and where. Until we have that, we’re never going to have the full picture.”

Mawer’s presentation highlighted how sport can use participation or licence agreements in order to police against match-fixing. The WPBSA requests the social network passwords of all players as a condition of participation, using a software called RAID to monitor social network activity. “Snooker players are in a professional snooker bubble from the age of seven”, he told delegates. “They are not properly educated, and need advice from managers and agents”.

Athlete welfare

“Sport is all about perspective, and when athletes lose their perspective, that’s when it stops being fun”, said Nigel Walker, a former athlete and rugby union player, now with the English Institute of Sport (EIS). Lewis highlighted that the singular focus of the athlete makes retirement difficult, as athletes often do not have other interests to fall back on, as compared to people in ‘normal’ professions.

It was also suggested that sporting organisations can take the wrong approach towards historic cases. “When I took evidence of a young golfer cheating to English sporting organisations, they wanted the names of the people involved”, said Dr. Kitrina Douglas, a former professional golfer now with Leeds Beckett University. “When I showed the same evidence to the Dutch authorities, they wanted information on how they could support their young athletes”.

Concussion proved a more difficult nut to crack, if you’ll excuse the pun. In the US, between 3,000 and 4,000 former National Football League (NFL) footballers have launched a class action against the NFL, seeking over $1 billion in damages for brain injuries caused by repeated concussion. It was agreed that in professional sport, governing bodies are beginning to take the right steps. In amateur sport, it was agreed that a sensible solution was to take a player off as soon as they receive a blow to the head.

• ‘Integrity and Athlete Welfare: Staying Ahead of the Game’ was organised by Sport Resolutions, an independent dispute resolution service for sport in the UK. During the last year, it has handled over 1,000 disputes in over 40 sports. For more information, click here

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