INDR commentary, Kelsey Erickson

By Kelsey Erickson, Leeds Beckett University, UK



Blowing the whistle on doping in sport

Growing recognition for the magnitude of corruption in international sport has prompted significant interest in exposing and eradicating wrongdoing in sport; in particular, doping. In light of ongoing doping scandals (e.g., Russian doping), individuals are being increasingly encouraged – and expected – to play an active role in deterring the behavior and whistleblowing has emerged as a primary means for achieving this. Commonly defined as “the disclosure by organisation members (former or current) of illegal, immoral, or illegitimate practices under the control of their employers, to persons or organisations that may be able to affect action” (Near & Miceli, 1985: 4), whistleblowing has proven effective for exposing doping (e.g., Yuliya Stepanova/Vitaly Stepanov regarding Russian Athletics). The behavior has therefore garnered increasing interest from researchers (Erickson, Backhouse, & Carless, 2017; Whitaker, Backhouse, & Long, 2014), the media and anti-doping organisations worldwide.

To encourage whistleblowing, significant resources have been (and are) directed towards ‘Report Doping’ platforms, including the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) Speak Up! Platform (WADA, 2017) and accompanying Whistleblowing Program (2016) which outlines the rights afforded to whistleblowers. WADA are compelling those with information on doping to come forward and incentivising the behavior within the WADA Code (WADC; Article 10.6.1; WADA, 2015) by offering the possibility for individuals to have the length of their sanctions reduced (and/or removed entirely) for providing substantial assistance leading to an anti-doping rule violation (ADRV) by another. However, these advances in anti-doping policy and practice largely overlook the complexity of reporting doping in sport.

In situations of whistleblowing on doping, individuals are faced with a ‘true moral dilemma’ – two equally valid and demanding moral options (Erickson et al., 2017; Uys & Senekal, 2008). As a result, individuals must choose between (1) reporting the doping athlete to protect the rights of athletes at large to compete in doping-free sport or (2) staying quiet to protect the doping athlete's athletic career, reputation and wellbeing given the social consequences associated with being labelled a ‘doper’ (Georgiadis & Papazoglou, 2014). Notably, someone gets harmed regardless of the final choice. Complicating matters further, emerging evidence suggests that (potential) doping whistleblowers also need to consider the possible consequences of blowing the whistle for themselves (e.g., loss of contracts, sponsorships, etc.) (Erickson, Backhouse & Patterson, In Preparation). Thus, the behavior is not as straightforward as commonly suggested within the anti-doping movement and facilitating the behavior is not as simple as introducing more ‘Report Doping’ resources and platforms. Indeed, alongside the dilemma posed by whistleblowing, (potential) doping whistleblowers are further faced with: (a) an absence of evidence-based whistleblowing policies, (b) a ‘win at all costs’ mentality in sport (Richardson & McGlynn, 2015), (c) the threat of retaliation from a range of stakeholders (e.g., fans, sponsors, media) who are not directly attached to the individual/organization against whom they are reporting (Richardson & McGlynn, 2011, 2015), (d) (the perception that) athletes who report doping are treated more harshly than doping athletes (Whitaker et al., 2014), (e) the existence of a ‘code of silence’ and ‘omerta’ in sport (Shipley, 2013; Whitaker et al., 2014; Kimmage, 2017), and (f) a lack of knowledge and education related to whistleblowing (Whitaker et al., 2014). Against this backdrop, how can we encourage the behavior?


Immediate changes

  • Whistleblowing Policy and Whistleblower Protection. This can: (1) reduce the negative stigma attached to the label ‘whistleblower’ (e.g., snitch), (2) deter potential dopers for fear that their behaviour will be exposed and (c) create a truly open environment.
  • Whistleblower Support. This could be facilitated within sport through appointing a whistleblower ombudsman.
  • Whistleblowing Education. This can increase engagement with whistleblowing and signals that an organisation cares about and values whistleblowing.


Long-term changes

  • Ethical Culture. To achieve this, organisations must shift the focus from the messenger to the message in whistleblowing situations and view whistleblowers as initiators of problem-solving and agents of change.



                      The global anti-doping movement is increasingly encouraging and expecting whistleblowers to come forward, but the complexity of the behavior and potentially significant (personal) costs cannot be overlooked. In order for the anti-doping movement to accommodate and facilitate whistleblowing on doping, a shift in whistleblowing culture – from condemning to celebrating the behavior – is necessary. A critical step towards achieving this is implementing evidence-based whistleblowing policy and procedures. Such action will send the message that organizations recognize and value the courage it takes to come forward with doping information. Given the significant number of barriers posed to potential doping whistleblowers, courage is certainly at the heart of any whistleblowing case.



Erickson, K., Patterson, L.B., & Backhouse, S.H. (In Preparation). Blowing the whistle on doping in sport: “The process isn’t a case of report it and stop”.

Erickson, K., Backhouse, S. H., & Carless, D. (2017). “I don't know if I would report them”: Student-athletes' thoughts, feelings and anticipated behaviours on blowing the whistle on doping in sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 30, 45-54. doi:

Georgiadis, E., & Papazoglou, I. (2014). The Experience of Competition Ban Following a Positive Doping Sample Of Elite Athletes. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 8(1), 57-74. doi:10.1123/jcsp.2014-0012

Kimmage, P. (2017, December 22). Half a century on from Simpson's death, cycling's omerta still rules in the peloton. Ireland Independent. Retrieved from

Near, J. P., & Miceli, M. (1985). Organizational dissidence: The case of whistle-blowing. Journal of Business Ethics, 4(1), 1-16.

Richardson, B. K., & McGlynn, J. (2015). Blowing the Whistle Off the Field of Play: An Empirical Model of Whistle-Blower Experiences in the Intercollegiate Sport Industry. Communication & Sport. doi:10.1177/2167479513517490

Shipley, A. (2013, April 6). Baseball Starts Playing Hardball in South Florida Doping Probe. Sun Sentinel. Retrieved from drug-probe-20130407_1_usada-lance-armstrong-u-s-anti-doping-agency.

Uys, T., & Senekal, A. (2008). Morality of principle versus morality of loyalty: The case of whistleblowing. African Journal of Business Ethics, 3(1), 38-44.

WADA. (2015). World Anti-Doping Code. Retrieved from

WADA. (2016). Whistleblowing Program. Retrieved from

WADA. (2017). Speak Up! Retrieved from

Whitaker, L., Backhouse, S. H., & Long, J. (2014). Reporting doping in sport: National level athletes' perceptions of their role in doping prevention. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports. doi:10.1111/sms.12222