By Dr Katinka van de Ven, Lecturer in Criminology, Birmingham City University and Kyle J.D. Mulrooney, PhD Fellow, Doctorate in Cultural and Global Criminology, University of Kent.

‘Rio 2016 is proving that sport is in crisis’

The ‘whisper’ that seems to follow every athlete that wins and especially those who break records, dominate their fields or see a dramatic improvement in performance…is he/she doping?

The Olympics has once again seen some astonishing performances and world records broken. However, many of these exceptional performances have been questioned in the media and even by the winning athlete’s competitors. Take for example, South African Wayde van Niekerk, who smashed Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old 400-metre world record. One of the first questions he was asked upon winning was about how he would respond to people who said he was on drugs. Likewise, Ethiopia’s Almaz Ayana faced accusations from her fellow competitors after breaking the world record in the women’s 10,000 meters by more than 14 seconds. And, most recently, the success of the British cycling team has been questioned: how is it they are performing so well?

The fact that these questions are being raised is not odd. Indeed, the history of doping in sport gives us numerous reasons to believe that their performance may be aided by performance and image enhancing drugs. Looking at the history of cycling alone, there is, for example, the 1998 Tour de France scandal which exposed systematic doping at the highest level and the more recent doping affair involving the cyclist Lance Armstrong (2012-2013).

When considering sports in general, we see that many athletes are being stripped of their medals after retesting their samples. For instance, from the retested samples of the 2012 London Olympics around two dozen athletes tested positive, adding to the over 30 already caught in retesting from the 2008 Beijing Games. In addition, while the percentage of positive tests remains consistently low – around 2 per cent – both anti-doping officials and researchers agree that these numbers are presumably much higher (ranging from 10 to 20 per cent) depending on the sport. Even though drug testing has progressed, anti-doping always seems to be running behind, with new substances constantly being developed or sophisticated methods being invented to avoid positive tests. Clearly, then there is enough reason to believe that doping is highly prevalent in the world of sport.

On the other hand, as David Epstein discussed in his TED talk ‘Are athletes really getting faster, better, stronger?’, technology has changed the face of performance as well. In his talk he takes Eddy Merckx as an example, who set the record in 1972 for the longest distance cycled in one hour at 30 miles, 3,774 feet. This record has improved over time as bicycles improved and became more aerodynamic. The current record stands at 30 miles, 4,657 feet, a grand total of 883 feet farther than Eddy Merckx cycled more than four decades ago. Moreover, it is not just about technological advances, but think, for example, of the ways in which better training equipment, better training methods, better medical care, better diet and nutrition and so on have allowed athletes to naturally become bigger, stronger and faster.

So, we are left wondering… Are these athletes using doping substances? However, this question distracts us from the more important question: is the current approach to anti-doping working? One only needs to look at the issues surrounding the Russian team in the lead-up to Rio or wait for the re-tested samples from Rio in the coming years to answer that question. Testing issues aside, it would appear that anti-doping has lost any credibility to police sport, with many declaring it as a resounding failure. Evidently, this distrust has lent itself to athletes taking it upon themselves to call out fellow competitors suspected of doping and the media constantly questioning any achievements deemed exceptional. It is time to re-think our approach to anti-doping and to move on from a system which is simply concerned with the use of drugs, positive or negative tests and punishment, to one which gives consideration to the plurality of social, cultural and economic issues at the root of doping.

Indeed, the problems of doping run much deeper. If Rio has made anything clear it is that sport itself is in crisis; from the involvement of organized crime and corrupt judges, to the socio-economic impact of the Olympics on Brazil and, of course, doping. We need to confront these issues head on but it is undeniable that the current approach is not working and may even be regressive. Sports criminology has the ability to breathe new life into these debates and should take an active role in developing realistic ways to confront these issues.

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