The Journal of Sport and Exercise Studies/Business, Politics and Sport 2011/A Separate ‘Legal Doping’ Sport Competition

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Reece.V, 2011
Original copy

Criticism has arisen pertinent to anti-doping policies implemented by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) which have been adopted and supported by ASADA and a plethora of governments and national sporting bodies. It is purported that current anti-doping policy contains inconsistencies and ambiguities. Commentators maintain that, as outright prevention of doping is an impossibility, doping should be legalised. In turn, it is supposed athletes would be compelled to use drugs, and the net effect would be a level playing field. Resultantly, this article endeavoured to critically examine the principles underpinning WADA policy whilst forming the basis to explore the business and politics enveloping the concept of a separate legal doping competition (SLDC). Several sports, for example athletics, were used as a platform in order to investigate whether or not the implementation of a SLDC could be of success. Considered, was whether the advent of these competitions could be sustainable and profitable. Local and international opinions from athletes, professionals, fans and the public were gained concerning the concept.

Findings were slightly varied; signalling an introduction of a SLDC could harm the integrity of sport and pose unnecessary health risks towards athletes and the importance of public and fan opinion would deter business involvement within sport, ultimately revealing the implausibility of a SLDC. Nevertheless, ambiguities and inconsistencies found within anti-doping policies lengthened the argument to alter policies to minimise athlete harm whilst strengthening the potential for a SLDC. An introduction or 'trial' of new policies aimed at controlled use and harm reduction appeared the most viable alternative to current practice.

Critical Examination of the Current Anti-Doping Policy – Creating Potential for a Legal Doping Format[edit]

Currently, WADA’s policy model is based upon four assumptions about the role of sport in modern society and its responsibilities to its key constituents (WADA, 2009). These include the need to set a good example, ensure a level playing field, protect the health of athletes and preserve the integrity of sport. All four assumptions are used to justify the inclusion of both performance-enhancing and illicit drugs on the WADA list of prohibited substances. (Smith and Stewart (2008)), however, assert WADA’s policy drivers are riddled with ambiguities and contradictions which prove a futile means of curbing performance enhancing substance use in sport and strengthen arguments to legalise doping in a controlled manner and subsequently implement SLDC’s.

Level Playing Field Arguments[edit]

Smith and Stewart (2008) and (Wilson, Gilbert & Edwards (2004)) purport WADA, ASADA and the IOC to erroneously assume that the drug code is essential to the maintenance of a level playing field where no athletes are disadvantaged unfairly. The argument holds sufficient weight, as sport should embrace equal chance of success for all competitors. However, the level playing-field rationale is laden with inconsistencies, as there is a multitude of non-drug-related factors that can provide a competitive edge including, genetic advantage, gender bias and differing levels of socio-economic access to training technology (Smith and Stewart, 2008). For example, advances in sports sciences and medicines means that only certain privileged athletes have access to the latest training advantages that will give them a competitive edge (Waddington and Smith, 2006). While erythropoietin (EPO) (a drug which increases the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood) may be a banned substance, those who can afford to train at high altitude or sleep in an altitude chamber can obtain a lesser but similar benefit (Le Page, 2006).

Policy Driven Doping Industry[edit]

The highly competitive nature of sport and the rewards engulfing success has culminated in the emergence of an industry set on unearthing technology (e.g. drugs, training techniques, nutrition or equipment) that provides an athlete the capacity to win (Eber and Thepot 1999). Accordingly, (Mazanov and Connor (2010) claim the advent of anti-doping policy means that the sports technology industry “expanded to combine innovation in drug development with ways to circumvent anti-doping, specifically drug testing”. In turn, anti-doping policy promotes doping by unintentionally encouraging research and development of new drugs that substitute for banned drugs (Dilger, Frick & Tosldorf (2007), generating an entire industry devoted to keeping one step ahead of the anti-doping policy (Kayser, Mauron & Miah (2007). This is notable in the case involving the United States Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative where the designer anabolic steroid, tetrahydrogestrinone (THG) was developed (Wiesing, 2011). However, it is relevant to note that the discovery of THG came as a result of an individual's good will rather than the success of anti-doping policies and laboratories.

Ensuring Athlete Health[edit]

The dangers of unregulated drug use in sport have been clearly established. Despite this, sports such as rugby league, boxing and motor racing continue to be played despite warnings and risks of serious injury. Consequently, disciplinary drug use policies that are defended on the grounds of athlete health protection appear contradictory when there is widespread acceptance for sports such as mixed martial arts, where the intent of the participants is to inflict serious harm. Therefore, if athletes are free to engage in sports with substantial risks, why are they not also free to utilise performance enhancements that often have less risk attached, than the sports in which they engage?

Waddington and Smith (2006) purport the policy of banning drugs has made it more difficult for athletes to obtain medical advice that might reduce the health damage of the drugs they are using. Athletes who self-medicate predominantly use substantially more than necessary, thereby amplifying their risk of illness and injury (Waddington and Smith, 2006). Thus legalising doping in tandem with the provision of education and medical support for the management of this ‘compromised choice’ amplifies potential once more for the implementation of a SLDC. This is bolstered following assertions made by (Kirkwood 2009) that the controlled administering of doping substances under medical supervision can safeguard an athlete’s health. However, this approach is complicated by evidence which suggests that a lack of vigilance in testing leads to more drug use (Vogel, 2004). Nevertheless, studies of cannabis use suggests that a reduction in sanctions, such as decriminalised personal use, does not lead to increased levels or patterns of use, but may actually assist in reducing harm associated with drug use (Macintosh, 2006). The politics surrounding the health argument is further compounded, given alcohol and tobacco, two of society’s most destructive drugs, are widely accepted by WADA and most NSO's. Therefore, if these drugs are allowed in sport, questions are raised as to why non hazardous, performance enhancing drugs and subsequently a SLDC, cannot exist. Moreover, it suggests the economic benefits derived from tobacco and alcohol sponsorship and consumption hold greater importance than the physical and social harm they often cause.

The potential to establish a SLDC remains impeded nevertheless as there is still a current lack of knowledge regarding the appropriate limits of the use of performance - enhancing drugs which means deciding which doping activities lead to which unwanted effects is often difficult to determine, particularly with regard to the long-term perspective. This lack of knowledge is particularly problematic in relation to new substances. Therefore if a legal doping competition was to form for any sport even with monitoring and supervision, the health risks still remain extremely high. The President of the Council on Bioethics sums concerns, stating no biological agent powerful enough to achieve major changes in the body or mind is likely to be entirely safe or without side effects.

Opinions towards Anti Doping Policy and Legalizing Doping in Sport[edit]

Professional Opinion[edit]

Oxford ethicist and notable figure within the doping debate, Julian Savulescu provided candid views on doping (Hall, 2007). Savulescu supposed “one way of dealing with the problems is to change the rules so not all drugs are illegal”. Savulescu used caffeine as an example stating “it has been found to be safe and it's now no longer illegal and athletes who use it are not cheating. This doesn't seem to have corrupted the spirit of the Olympics or sport”. Savulescu also maintained that a level playing cannot be achieved as athletes are already a ‘race apart’ consequential to their connection with highly advanced and alternative techniques for development and success including overnight intravenous nutrition and hydration.

(Thomas Murray, president of The Hastings Center, explains why sensible drug control policies are important for sports)

Interview with Athlete[edit]

In order to gather international opinion towards the business and politics of doping in sport and the potential for a legal doping competition, the researcher conducted an interview with a college athlete from Oregon, USA.

• Do you think doping should be allowed in sport?

No, simply because it is cheating and it is clearly unfair. Like many athletes, you spend many, many hours training and making sacrifices. So why should I do all of that when one athlete decides to take a supplement that will provide an unfair advantage. Of course people who dope still have to train extremely hard, but that slight advantage in athletics is a huge difference. Plus you have all the health risks that come with certain substances, especially with newer, untested ones.

• Do you think anti-doping policy ensures a level playing field?

I am not convinced it ensures a level playing field because athletes continue to break the rules undetected, but I do believe it is attempting to stop and catch athletes from using performance enhancers. I’ve had drug tests at track meets and at times without any prior warning so there is clearly an attempt being made. I still think our national sporting bodies can do more to limit the effects or at least alter policies to make things clearer for athletes.

• Do you think there is potential for a separate, legal doping athletics competition and if so, could it be commercially viable?

I don’t think so. There are far too many reasons why it wouldn’t work and I just think athletics has suffered enough from doping. It would send athletics and sport in general in the wrong direction and simply encourage athletes of all ages that taking drugs is the right thing to do and will allow you to perform at an elite level. I also doubt any sponsors would want to partner with a pro-doping event. Unless the sport was going to offer something incredibly unique, I think it would end up like some terrible trend where it becomes popular for a short time because of controversy, not because of skill or talent and then there would be a massive drop and everyone would lose interest from watching juiced up humans.

Impact of Doping towards the Commercial Viability of Sport[edit]

It is supposed a prime justification for anti-doping is the assumption consumers would turn away from ‘drug-tainted’ sports (Carstairs, 2003), resulting in diminished revenues from broadcasting, advertising or gate receipts (Leeds and von Allmen, 2008). Despite evidence of widespread drug use across the latter half of the twentieth century, the Olympic Games broadcast revenues have increased from US$88 million in 1980 to US$1706 million in 2008 (IOC 2009). The IOC and host national sporting bodies could argue that anti-doping policy increased revenues by creating the ‘cleanest’ competition possible. However, correlating revenue with anti-doping makes it equally plausible to argue revenues have increased because of the presence of performance enhancing drugs; for example, revenues may increase as a function of drug enabled record-breaking. The US Major League Baseball has also demonstrated that despite ongoing drug use through the 1990s and 2000s, there was no evidence to support that commercial revenue diminished (Carstairs 2003). Ultimately, Mazanov and Connor (2010) suggest that sport generally and Olympic sport specifically would survive independently of the anti-doping policy. Thus if a SLDC in athletics were to be established, for example, sufficient potential exists for it to be a relative success and engage with sponsors and fans.

Nevertheless, strong evidence exists to suggest athlete drug use has diminished the commercial viability of sport. During the 2001 Nordic World Ski Championship in Finland, for example, six Finnish cross-country skiers were sanctioned for violating doping regulations (Laine, 2006). In turn, the commercial value of cross-country skiing in Finland was significantly reduced with financial losses to the Finnish Ski Association in excess of €3 million (Solberg, Hanstad and Thoring, 2010).

Likewise, the 2009 Tour of Germany’s cancellation was directly attributed to the decision of two German television broadcasters to discontinue coverage due to drug use in the Tour de France (USA Today 2008). Similarly, German tool company Würth withdrew its sponsorship of the Astana cycling team, directly consequential to doping incidents involving Alexander Vinokourov in the 2007 Tour de France (Tremlett, 2008). Following this episode, several sponsors including Quick Step, Gerolsteiner, T-Mobile and Credit Agricole did likewise, withdrawing from cycling pertinent to doping related issues (Waddington & Smith, 2009). These examples illustrate that doping can negatively affect the derived demand of sport given the commercial stakeholders willingness to spend resources on elite sports is greatly reduced. As positive promotion of the stakeholder and their products are the main objectives, the examples highlight the tentativeness of sponsors to engage in sport consequential to negative reactions from their current and potential customers, clients and the public. Ultimately, concern is raised over the commercial feasibility and viability of a separate legal doping competition.


Findings throughout revealed a varying approach and opinion towards the doping in sport debate. It appears doping entails exposing the athletes to avoidable risks that do not need to be taken to increase the appeal of a sport. Incidents which exhibit the commercial damage caused by doping underpin and further the claim that a SLDC would be clearly impractical. However, the benefits associated with altering inconsistencies and ambiguities cannot be discounted and shed light on the potential to trial changes pertinent to performances enhancing drugs that have no ill effects. Ultimately a trial program would be the most plausible option if a SLDC were to be established. It seems rather than striving for eradication of doping, which appears to be an unattainable goal, a more pragmatic approach aimed at controlled use and harm reduction may be a viable alternative for anti-doping policy makers, NSO's and governments in order to cope with doping and doping-like behaviour to ensure the integrity and fairness of sport is not lost.

Video Presentation[edit]

(Link to Video Presentation of BPS Assignment)


  • Smith, A. T., & Stewart, B. (2008). Drug policy in sport: hidden assumptions and inherent contradictions. Drug & Alcohol Review, 27(2), 123-129. Available at