Tuesday 1 May 2012

How long should “drugs cheats” be banned?

The British Olympic Association’s (BOA) attempt to keep its lifetime Olympic ban for athletes – in contradiction to the rules of the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) – was decisively rejected by the Court of Arbitration for Sport yesterday. The BOA had to pay the costs of arbitration.

As I predicted it ends in the defeat that most expected (see my blog of March 12). I can’t say I am too unhappy about this. One of the best features of the current anti doping system is that we have a worldwide body that everyone signs up to. If one country has a different sentence or interpretation of the rules, whether more or less lenient, then they still have to tow the party line. As I describe in my book, at one time or another, many countries – the UK included – have been accused of being too lenient about the results of positive drug tests. We need a standard body to ensure a level playing field; otherwise there will be anarchy. Of course the correct thing for the BOA to do is to campaign to change WADA’s sentencing rules, as it now seems to be doing. Whether it has any political capital left to succeed in this is a moot point.

But the more interesting question is what should the ban be? Two years, four years, life? In my last blog I made the case for a long ban. But there are pragmatic reasons to go for a shorter term. One is that it might encourage cheats to come forward and give evidence against others in the system. But perhaps a more compelling argument is that two years may be the maximum ban that will stand up in court given our current testing regime. After all a ban prevents someone earning a livelihood in their chosen profession; whatever length it is, this is a pretty severe punishment. So you have to be sure of your conviction. My suspicion is that there would be even more appeals against positive tests if the bans were longer. These appeals might also have more chance of success, forcing WADA to prove how a compound got into an athlete’s system, rather than the athlete having to prove their innocence (as is the case now). The more severe a sentence, the more lawyers get involved. Just think how much more legal expense there is in the USA with a death penalty compared to a life sentence. So a longer ban might, perhaps counter-intuitively, result in fewer cheats getting caught.

I am a scientist, not an athlete, nor a sports administrator. My views on the length of ban matter no more than those of any other fan. But for what it is worth I am a pragmatist as heart. I favour the system that has the best chance of catching the most people, not one that inflicts the largest penalty once they are caught. I think fear of getting caught is a better deterrent than fear of the length of a punishment – both in life and in sport.

Of course the main winners in this story are the lawyers who have hoovered up a fraction of the BOA and WADA’s budgets. But that’s a story for another blog…….


  1. How do you assess the appropriate penalty for athletes who are overgrown due to abuse of growth hormone in their developmental years? To be sure, the physical advantages gained over clean athletes are permanent.

  2. I am not convinced about the premise of this question. There is no scientific consensus as to whether treating "normal" children with growth hormone actually increases their height - let alone that this is performance enhancing. The consensus is that there is a short term growth spurt, but the long term end point is controversial. So in practical terms I don't feel it is necessary for sport to address this question.

    Theoretically it is intriguing, however, Let's say growth hormone did work and could make a normal sprinter into a Usain Bolt type. My gut feeling is that if there is such an effect decisions would be taken based on how comfortable society felt about this. I think in the UK, we would look askance at a parent paying $30,000 to increase the height of a child who was only a bit short. In other countries this may be viewed differently. I personally (my reserved UK upbringing) do feel uncomfortable with the idea. But I think there is no practical way of penalising people BEFORE they start competing except to use the analogy from gender testing. If sport felt the treatment was inappropriate then that person would be banned from competitive sport completely as they had a long term unfair advantage (just like a male competing against female athletes).

    I suspect if it is ever scientifically proven that anabolic steroid treatment has real long term benefits after the treatment has been stopped (the so called muscle remodelling theory) then similar arguments might be used for lifetime bans.

    Thanks for the question

    Chris Cooper

  3. Do you know the length of bans in different sports for drug abuse? i.e. NFL, Baseball, Soccer, Tennis, Boxing, Athletics?

  4. The bans are standardised for sports that come under the WADA umbrella i.e. basically all Olympic sports. The governing bodies impose them, but WADA can appeal a ruling if they consider it too lenient (as happened with Alberto Contador when WADA and UCI appealed against a ruling by the Spanish cycling federation). Professional boxing (not amateur), NFL and baseball can set their own rules.