It’s a Fair Game – Cheltenham Science Festival 2011

I’m speaking at The Times Cheltenham Science Festival later today and for those of you that can’t make it, or those of you that are coming but want to have chance to think about the discussion in advance, here’s the first draft of my 10 min talk (apologies for any bad grammar or spelling – I said it was ‘rough’!):

It’s a Fair Game

Are the anti-doping rules and policies fair?

Well, in order to answer such a question we need think about what we mean by fair?

Does this mean; everyone is subjected to equal treatment?

A cursory glance suggests, yes, the rules are the same for everyone and therefore these rules and policies are fair.

However, you only have to dig a little bit deeper to realise that it isn’t quite as straightforward as we might like to think.

When sport is discussed the metaphor ‘level playing field’ commonly crops up. And this is founded on the idea that sport should be about testing the natural capacities of the athlete. And by ‘natural capacities’ we mean the raw God-given talent that we are born with, and the mental courage and tenacity to be dogged and determined in developing this talent in order to reach its potential.

And this is one of the odd things about our stance towards doping. One of the main arguments used in support of the anti-doping policies is that using these substances are a short cut to reaching, or even surpassing this natural potential. You are not only cheating the sport, you are cheating yourself.

And yet no-one says the same about sleeping in a hypoxic chamber which has a similar effect on the red blood cells and oxygen carrying capacity as living at altitude. No one says the same about wearing state of the art clothing or footwear (although the recent ban on polyurethane swimsuits is an interesting exception that we might want to discuss further later). No one says that intensive sessions with your sports psychologist are a short cut to success. All of these things are part and parcel of elite sport whereby a fraction of a second can mean the difference between winning and losing, between success and perceived failure. Yet if we follow this argument that is often used against doping to its logical conclusion, we would rule out training altogether. Let the winner be the one who manages to get out of bed having never spent a day in the gym or watching what she ate, yet who manages to cross the line first. But this is ridiculous. Just as we value an athlete’s natural capacity, we also value the sacrifices they make in reaching their potential.

So when we talk about fairness in sport – it’s a myth. The countries that win the majority of Olympic medals are not those that happen to have the best gene pool (if we think a genetic lottery should be the basis for fairness) but those that are able to invest millions into talent identification, facilities, equipment, training, medicine, nutrition… the list goes on and on. It is the exceptions to this myth that get highlighted as examples that if you’ve got the raw talent and determination to succeed then you’ll make it. I note that the writer, journalist and former athlete, Matthew Syed, is speaking after this event on these ideas, and if you haven’t read his book Bounce, I thoroughly recommend it.

So sport at the elite level certainly isn’t fair if when we use the term, we mean ‘fairness as equality’. There are countless millions that had they been born in the right country, and spotted at the right time could have a shot at success.

So perhaps we mean fairness in that we are free to determine our own paths. Fairness as liberty and autonomy one might say.

Yet this certainly isn’t the case in terms of doping. Another common argument given in support of anti-doping is that these substances are terribly harmful and we don’t want these poor athletes suffering from their ill-judged decisions.

Now my parents might say that I make ill-judged decisions – not least because I play sports that I probably shouldn’t. And certainly not now I’m well into my thirties. I’ve got a large scar on my forehead from being stamped on in a rugby match, chronic pains in my shoulder from repeated injury to a collarbone I broke quite badly, several broken fingers and if you notice me hobbling about today it’s because I went to a gymnastics session last night and went over on my ankle. I’d be very surprised if you could find any former athlete that doesn’t suffer from chronic pain as a direct result from participation in sport. Sport is a dangerous pursuit.

Yet when it comes to doping, there is a sudden desire to protect athletes from potential harm. I don’t wish to get too side-tracked on the argument against doping from harm because this isn’t really what this session is about, but Verner Moller in his recent book ‘The Ethics of Doping and Anti-Doping’ makes a very compelling argument that allowing doping, particularly in the world of cycling, might actually reduce the harm done to athletes in their rigorous pursuit of glory.

So fairness as liberty doesn’t seem to stand up either.

Perhaps fairness could be applied then in relation to the fair treatment of athletes as human beings.

Yet I am doubtful of this too for two reasons. First, such is the hysteria that surrounds doping, any athlete that is suspected of a doping offence is vilified, particularly in the media. It is almost akin to serious crimes (and I don’t want to have a Ken Clark moment here) so I’ll leave you to think of which crimes these might be. Even athletes that are cleared of doping offences are seen to have a shadow lurking behind them. Cynical comments abound that the athlete just got off on a technicality whereas they are, in fact, still guilty.

Second, I don’t know whether you are aware of the anti-doping ‘whereabouts rule’ which requires athletes to state where they will be at a particular hour every day of the year. The rationale behind this is that the anti-doping authorities don’t have to go hunting for an athlete if they wish to conduct a test. Miss three of these tests and you’re guilty of an anti-doping offence. Now, I don’t know where I’m going to be from one day to the next but you can imagine that there may be good reasons why an athlete, even with a strict schedule, might not be exactly where they said they would be for every day of the year. This rule has been criticised for going against both privacy rights and data protection laws. Moreover, a rule of this kind is not fair in its treatment of athletes. It is akin to having a tag or curfew order or having to report to a police station on a daily basis.

So the idea of a fair game isn’t as straightforward as it initially seems. Apart from the fact that fairness itself is quite a slippery term, the idea that the anti-doping rules are part of making sport fair, doesn’t seem to ring true.


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