The news that Russia has been banned from the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics for engaging in systematic, state-sponsored doping seems like a big win for international anti-doping efforts. Russia now finds itself locked out of world’s premier athletic stage.
In the coming days, expect the Putin regime to issue strong denunciations of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and perhaps the odd conspiracy theory. We should also expect strong criticisms of Russia from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and a handful of Western nations, along with much hand-wringing about the need for further efforts, and money, to see to “clean” sport.
All of this would be on-script. WADA’s inception in 1999 was the culmination of international efforts to secure a “doping-free sporting environment” where international standards could be formulated and disseminated, athletes could be monitored and governance could be centralized.
War on Drugs
But seemingly secondary to such institutional considerations is another important concern: the actual health of the athlete. That issue seems to be routinely overlooked; the news coverage about Russia’s ban is overwhelmingly focused on their corruption and rule-breaking, rather than the fact that they may have jeopardized their athletes’ health by sponsoring doping activities that may lead to liver toxicity or act to break down white matter in the brain.
Indeed, international anti-doping efforts resemble the United States’ failed War on Drugs, which is more about punishing the pushers rather than helping and educating the users. This is a short-sighted, arbitrary and ultimately losing strategy. By focusing on the promulgation of anti-doping rules and requiring mindless compliance, we’ve enabled a costly and invasive regime that has suffered massive public failures — even as it imposes evermore ultimately ineffective restrictions on athletes.
For instance, top athletes must comply with rules such as providing their whereabouts to anti-doping organizations so that they may be subject to random testing — even when out of competition. Athletes and lawyers alike have likened the system to Orwellian surveillance with real questions as to whether this requirement conflicts with regional privacy legislation.
Such draconian methods would perhaps be defensible if anti-doping standards weren’t so arbitrary and fluid. But they are, and WADA’s history with testosterone/epitestosterone ratio (t/e ratio) is a good example.
Steroid violations typically change the t/e ratio so an imbalance is used to detect potential anti-doping cheats. But WADA has changed this t/e ratio several times — first setting the threshold at 6:1, then raising it to 10:1, lowering it back to 6:1 and then reducing it further to 4:1.
Why did WADA change the thresholds? Likely because measurement is difficult. Human beings are incredibly diverse (for example, t/e ratios among ethnic Koreans and Swedes diverge wildly) and natural variation means that setting thresholds is often more art than science.
Despite this, anti-doping rules are often written in unrelentingly broad and punitive language. Many substances are prohibited in even trace amounts. Sometimes, this can lead to confusing regulatory double-speak, which was on full display back in 2008 over clenbuterol detected in Jamaican sprinters’ urine.
Clenbuterol, which may have anabolic properties to promote muscle growth, is reported by WADA to be “prohibited at all times” (i.e. both in and out of competition). There is “no threshold under which this substance is not prohibited” and “no plan for WADA to introduce a threshold level for clenbuterol.”
However, as noted by even the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, clenbuterol can often be found in the livestock supply outside of the U.S. and Europe, and it makes the obvious point that “anti-doping authorities have no control over agricultural and food safety practices in these countries.” In fact, WADA issued a specific warning about clenbuterol in Chinese meat after the fact in 2011.
Nevertheless, as a non-threshold substance under anti-doping rules, Jamaican sprinters should have faced punishment for having clenbuterol in their system. But they didn’t, with WADA leadership content to wave away the issue — as well as their own quasi-judicial processes — by pointing to potential meat contamination.
These situations aren’t really analogous to state-sponsored doping, but they point to the arbitrariness of the current rules, as well as the inconsistency and dysfunction that tends to characterize systems whereby enforcement — rather than the promotion of health — is front and centre.
This is not to say that Russia should not have been sanctioned. In fact, sanctions should likely be harsher. But while it may seem like a moral victory to take down Russia for breaking anti-doping rules, the real question is why the outrage is directed at the cheating, rather than at the fact that scores of athletes, like Yuliya Rusanova, may have been pressured into participating and suffering ill-effects.
Much as Canada has taken a public health approach to the issue of cannabis and its impending legalization, governments across the world should place the promotion of health of athletes at the heart of sports governance. This would mean the repeal of rules predicated on strict compliance and surveillance in favour of a more permissive, athlete-friendly and athlete-first regime that balances education, treatment and investigation to flag potential threats.
We need to take the anti-doping fight from an institutional level to the athlete level. After all, while Russia will persist through these recent sanctions, the athletes affected may never be the same.