Combating Doping in Sports: More of the Same or What?

Guest Post: Bengt Kayser and Jan Tolleneer

Paper: Ethics of a relaxed antidoping rule accompanied by harm-reduction measures

Doping in sports continues to be prominently present in the media. Regularly ’scandals’ surface that then trigger flurries of articles, documentaries and reactions in the media. The general tone is one of moral opprobrium, dopers are considered deviant and bad. Frequently these episodes are accompanied by arguments for more means for repression of doping. These efforts, in principle coordinated by the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA), aim at eradicating doping from sports.

Doping is  considered cheating and dopers are bad. But despite increasing means doping remains rife, leading to what some call an arms race in a war on doping. Anti-doping still continues to cling to its essentialist objective, getting rid of this behaviour, even though it appears increasingly clear that this objective cannot be reached. Already today athletes have to comply with exceptional rules, such as the obligation to inform about their whereabouts 365 days a year in order to allow in and out of competition unannounced urine and blood sampling for anti-doping controls. But calls for more means and more repression resound. Increasingly countries, pressurized by the International Olympic Committee and WADA, introduce criminal law to repress doping, in several countries also applicable to non-athletes.

But repression of human behaviour comes with a cost. Prohibition of alcohol in the USA in the first part of the last century is good example, as is the so-called war on drugs. Like the latter, anti-doping also has unintended side-effects and it is possible that the overall societal cost of anti-doping may surpass the positive effects of anti-doping. The question then arises if there exist alternative approaches to dealing with doping. But so far the only two discourses on alternatives for dealing with doping focus on either repression or liberalisation.

In our recently published paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics we argue that there is an ethically acceptable alternative somewhere mid-stance. Our point of departure is a partial relaxation of the anti-doping rule, accompanied by harm reduction measures, in a dynamic setting, i.e. adaptable over time in reaction to what the effects would be. We develop our arguments on five levels: (1) What would it mean for the athlete (the self)? (2) How would it impact other athletes (the other)? (3) How would it affect the phenomenon of sport as a game and its fair play basis (the play)? (4) What would be the consequences for the spectator and the role of sports in society (the display)? and (5) What would it mean for what often is considered as essential to being human (humanity)? Our analysis suggests that a partial relaxation of the anti-doping rule accompanied by harm-reduction measures appears ethically defensible on all five levels. Our proposed alternative framework thus potentially provides an escape from the present spiralling towards criminalisation of doping and doping-like behaviour in society. It is time to start discussing the practical details of such a policy change and to start experimenting.