In defence of the rights of sportsmen

The anti-doping crusade has led to an appalling denigration of athletes’ rights. Why is there no uproar about it?

Klaus Wivel

Topics Politics

In the name of an international war against drugs, a large number of people are currently forced to live under a system of surveillance that is so thorough and so intrusive that you would expect human-rights campaign groups like Amnesty International to be up in arms about it. Who are these oppressed people? Why is their treatment eliciting no Amnesty-style outrage? The answer, it seems, is one and the same: they’re not proper people, they’re sports people.

Take a look for yourselves at the 1984-style regime these athletes have to live under. First, they are required to keep the doping authorities informed of their whereabouts at all times, and second they have to be available for testing for at least one hour each day. Athletes who fail three times to notify the authorities of their whereabouts risk a two-year ban from their sport – enough to wreck a career. In effect, athletes live on a leash. One of the most prominent anti-doping crusaders, physiologist Michael Ashenden, has even suggested that athletes should be obliged to carry a GPS device so that doping authorities can monitor their movements 24 hours a day.

Athletes are also expected to provide blood and urine samples upon request. While giving urine samples, male athletes have to lower their underwear down to their knees and roll up their t-shirts. This is to prove to the official that the urine sample really does come from the athlete in question. In the past, there have been instances of athletes submitting fake samples, most notably the Tour de France rider who was subsequently congratulated on his pregnancy.

Naturally, most athletes feel extremely uncomfortable with all this. At a recent seminar at Aarhus University’s Institute of Sport in Denmark, sports psychologist Anne-Marie Elbe mentioned the case of a young, talented German athlete who wasn’t able to perform her mandatory urine test in front of doping officials despite her drinking several litres of water and waiting for hours. Eventually, the test was cancelled. Half a year later, the athlete gave up her career. She didn’t want to put herself through the humiliation again.

Then there’s the Danish cyclist Michael Rasmussen. Recently, a doping official turned up at his home in Italy demanding a urine sample. Rasmussen couldn’t urinate immediately because he had just done so before the doping control officer showed up. However, shortly after the officer’s arrival he felt nature calling once more. Yet he wasn’t allowed to do this in private as the control officer would have to record a failed test. This would likely mean a lifetime ban for Rasmussen who had already served a two-year ban for failing to report his whereabouts.

It was the second time in two years that Rasmussen had to accept this type of intrusion. One can only wonder at how many other professional athletes out there have experienced the same kind of humiliating treatment. Rasmussen later filed a complaint with the Danish anti-doping authorities, saying: ‘I wish all of you had to shit in front of a German in your own house. It is not a pleasant experience.’

It is widely known that many top athletes are able to circumvent the doping controls, and almost half of those who do get caught are convicted of taking drugs that are not really performance-enhancing at all, like cannabis and cocaine. The rest of the doping offenders are mostly hobby weightlifters who test positive for steroids in fitness centres that anti-doping authorities (at least in Denmark) are allowed to control. Although steroids certainly are extremely unhealthy, it is difficult to see exactly who these bodybuilders are cheating, other than themselves. These muscle men are pumping iron for image enhancement, not for competitive reasons.

The anti-doping crusade has become an industry that far exceeds the world of professional competitive sports. The cases used to justify its growth and the severe infringements on athletes’ privacy are widely known. From Ben Johnson’s disqualification as Olympic 100 metres champion in 1988 to cycling’s Festina scandal of 1998, the world of professional sports has been haunted by athletes who have tried to take shortcuts to victory. The World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) was subsequently established in 1999 to coordinate the international efforts to ‘clean up’ sports.

Twelve years on, it is apparent that WADA is a big failure. Doping officials rarely find offenders at the top levels of sports. In fact, the police have been far more effective in rooting out the drug dealers, even though the police, too, have probably just scratched the surface. So WADA now wants to work in close cooperation with Interpol.

In truth, the anti-doping authorities have long been in cahoots with lawmakers and law enforcers. Back in 1999, the US Clinton administration, which was then very publicly committed to the war on drugs, demanded that cocaine and cannabis be put on the WADA list. This despite the fact that medical experts concluded that cannabis is the opposite of performance-enhancing and that cocaine only works as an enhancer if it is taken one-and-a-half hours before competition, and even then it isn’t very effective.

Most doping offences are committed by young athletes who smoked a joint or snorted coke at a party. And although these blunders have nothing to do with their sports and everything to do with being young, they will still get suspended for months or even years in the case of cocaine. During this time they are not allowed to compete in any sport and may even be banned from sports grounds. Get caught twice with cocaine in your blood and you can never compete again. On top of that, your reputation is usually butchered by the tabloid press.

Sports journalists have a field day every time a sinner is caught but few question whether doping convictions are reasonable. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist Michael A Hiltzik told me last year: ‘Every time an athlete is accused the debate plummets… Sports journalists are not in the habit of dealing with complex issues. Sciences, law, psychology – they are very uncomfortable with all that. This is why athletes who are charged on an extremely thin basis are razed to the ground by the media. Once charged you lose everything.’

In 2006, Hiltzik wrote two damning articles about WADA for the Los Angeles Times. He mentioned a string of examples of grotesque convictions. For instance, there was the then 17-year-old Italian swimmer Giorgia Squizzato who, during a competition, used some antibiotic cream that her mother had bought for her to treat a foot infection. The cream contained a steroid that was on the WADA list of banned substances. Although the judge of the arbitration case acknowledged that the substance could not have improved her performance, Squizzato received a one-year suspension.

Only in very rare cases has an athlete who tested positive been acquitted. Hiltzik showed that thousands of athletes are subject to a system where ‘anti-doping authorities act as prosecutors, judge and jury, enforcing rules that they have written, punishing violations based on sometimes questionable scientific tests that they develop and certify themselves, while barring virtually all outside appeals or challenges’.

One prime example is the curious case of the Danish soccer player Jesper Münsberg. Ahead of a friendly for his club Næstved in February 2008, long-term asthmatic Münsberg was suffering from a bad cold. So, just before kick-off, he took several deep puffs on his asthma spray, something Anti-Doping Denmark had always permitted, even though the spray contained salbutamol, which is on WADA’s list of banned substances.

That cold winter evening, inspectors from Anti-Doping Denmark paid Münsberg a visit. The test he took showed that the amount of salbutamol in his urine was more than one-and-a-half times above the permitted limit. Initially the Danish Sports Confederation doping committee dismissed the case. But in June 2008 WADA asked it to look at the matter again. Once more the case was dismissed. WADA appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

In February 2009 Münsberg was flown to Oslo where he underwent a three-day-long series of experiments under the supervision of WADA’s Norwegian inspectors. The experiments demonstrated that Münsberg was able once again to obtain an almost equally high level of salbutamol in the blood just by taking several puffs on his asthma spray. With these results Münsberg and his Danish team of lawyers went to Lausanne to try to convince CAS. It was all in vain. The three judges sentenced the Dane to six months’ suspension in November 2009.

As the chairman of the Danish Players Association, Anders Øland, remarked: ‘For elite athletes fighting WADA – with the reverse burden of proof and with WADA’s many resources – it is a David-versus-Goliath fight. The demands of the accused to prove their innocence are completely unreasonable and are having great economic and personal consequences.’

In any normal civic court anti-doping authorities wouldn’t stand a chance of winning these cases. That’s why the world of sports has introduced the extremely questionable judicial concept of ‘strict liability’. This means that it is not up to the prosecution to prove that a forbidden substance entered the body voluntarily. Instead it is up to the athlete to prove that a forbidden substance has entered the body involuntarily. In other words: you’re guilty until proven innocent.

Michael Joyner, professor of anaesthesiology and expert in EPO- and blood-doping, put it well when he said: ‘The war against doping is like a small version of the war on terror. When you wage a battle that destroys the values you claim to defend, your loss is twice as fatal.’

Yet curiously, despite the dire, rights-free lives of many athletes today, what has been the response of the human-rights lobby? That’s right: silence.

Klaus Wivel is a journalist with the Danish cultural weekly Weekendavisen.

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Topics Politics


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