by Katinka van de Ven, lecturer in Criminology at Birmingham City University

Lately it seems that not even a week can go by without an athlete testing positive for doping. The most recent revelation is that 31 athletes from the 2008 Beijing Games who had their samples retested using the latest techniques, have tested positive and are now facing bans. The same will be done with the 250 London 2012 samples of which the results will be published before the end of the month. Will this again reveal new ‘drug cheats’?

Over the course of time anti-doping has increased their arsenal in the ‘war against doping’ through increased testing, re-testing of samples at later dates, the ‘whereabouts’ system, the introduction of the biological passport and partnerships with criminal justice agencies – all in an effort to catch the drug cheats and the ‘doping network’ that surrounds them. Nonetheless, the percentage of positive tests remains consistently low – around 2 per cent- meaning that only a few of those tested are found guilty of doping. However, both anti-doping officials and researchers agree that these numbers are presumably much higher and although numbers differ depending on the sport, country, and so on, estimations are provided ranging from 10 to 20 per cent. On top of that, major doping scandals, such as the case involving top cyclist Lance Armstrong, suggest that doping is highly prevalent in the world of sport.

Evidently, the chance of getting caught is rather small, as athletes still seem to be able to evade detection. It therefore can be questionable whether or not increased surveillance and a broader testing program is the answer for deterring athletes from using doping substances. While the science of drug testing has progressed, there are limitations to testing technology and anti-doping always seems to be one step, or even several steps, behind. New substances are constantly being developed or sophisticated methods are invented to avoid positive tests.

A cultural shift in sport, driven in part by the athletes themselves, is needed if the doping problem is to be curbed. Unless we create a sustainable anti-doping culture, doping scandals will continue to occur. To this end, anti-doping needs to consider other options in contrast to the currently applied zero-tolerance approach. Rather, in an effort to shift the norms and values surrounding doping and, more importantly to protect the health of the athlete, resources should be allocated to address education, prevention and even harm reduction.

So, please do not be surprised if a number of athletes from the 2012 London Olympics test positive, be surprised if none of them do.

Katinka’s research interests are in the field of human enhancement drugs (HEDs), drug use and supply, drug policy, anti-doping, health, nutrition and sports.

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