Drug Testing and the Olympics: Bad for Health, Bad for Sport

This year the world again heard a great deal about the goal of a "drug-free" Olympic Games. The rationale by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is that doping in sport is cheating, dishonest and unethical. But does current policy really encourage fairness and promote the health of athletes? And do level "level playing fields" really exist?

The answer to both is "no."

Let’s be clear: the Olympic Games are, as ever, played out on a canvas of cheating, dishonesty and unethical behavior. The IOC itself was run for years as a private fiefdom by Juan Antonio Samaranch, a former official in Franco's regime, who invented his own rules and kept his hold on power through his control of membership nominations. The same IOC has sanctioned the throwing away of inconvenient positive dope tests. And the same IOC has allowed its members to take bribes – in the form of money paid into private accounts, school fees paid for sons and daughters, and "free" first class travel. Salt Lake City bought this year’s games -- having seen Nagano do the same four years earlier – for $10 million.

The idea that sport is played on a level playing field is a quaint one. In a world of rich and poor nations, where not everyone has access to the latest technology, sport is as fair as the size of your wallet. One of the African baseball teams at the Atlanta Olympic Games couldn't even afford enough balls to train with -- because one ball costs the equivalent of a week's wages.

Is doping more unethical than using pain killers to mask injury (a performance "enabler" as opposed to a performance "enhancer"), or pace makers, which are against the rules, in athletics? Don’t soccer players fake being tripped up in the penalty area, while basketball players foul openly as a tactic? Is this not cheating?

Doping, it is true, can be harmful to an athlete’s health. But all sports involve some level of voluntary risk: the state of Mohammed Ali’s health is poignant testimony to that. In what kind of a world do we rescind a gold medal from someone who uses stanozolol but do nothing about a sport whose prime objective is to inflict injury on an opponent? And boxing is certainly not unique. According to doctors, the health risks of the grueling three-week Tour de France may be far greater than those posed by illicit drugs many cyclists take. "I don’t risk my health" is an anti-doping slogan in Italy. Try telling that to the ski jumpers and downhill skiers in Salt Lake City. Why is everyone so concerned about the health of sports people who do what they do willingly and voluntarily?

Current anti-doping policies only serve to heighten health risks to athletes, while leaving levels of use undiminished. They drive the activity underground, encouraging the use of fakes and counterfeits and forcing people to use new, more dangerous substances for tests do not yet exist.

What would I recommend to the IOC, apart from sport cleaning up its own act?

First, realise that sport is a reflection of society and that the use of drugs is widespread. Accept that the use of performance enhancing drugs cannot be eradicated and attempts to do so make the problem worse. Sport shouldn’t think it can succeed where society has failed.

Second, end punitive drug testing. Practically speaking, the tests are ineffective: the authorities are not very good at consistent, accurate detection. Most tests can be cheated, laughable excuses are accepted when they serve vested interests, positive tests are thrown out -- and the whole thing is subject to negotiation between athletes and the authorities. Drug testing should be voluntary and should be used only to help athletes decrease risks to themselves.

Third, provide athletes with reality based education about performance enhancing drugs, their often exaggerated benefits, and how to make safer decisions about their use. Our priority should be the athletes’ health, not punishment for use of certain substances.

Fourth, bring the use of performance enhancing drugs out from the cold, place it under medical supervision and control their use better so as to minimize the health risks and reduce their harm.

The right answers are hard to find and I don’t claim to know them all. I do know most of the wrong ones however. These are the ones which are being provided today.

Pat O’Hare, an amateur cyclist who lives in Italy, is executive director of the International Harm Reduction Association and was formerly Editor of the International Journal of Drug Policy.


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