The compliance factor: limiting the anti-doping agenda?

INHDR commentary

By Susan Backhouse


Doping in sport continues to occupy a prominent place in daily headlines, especially during the last 12 months. Most notably, newspaper columns have covered the on-going Fuentes debacle, the Armstrong case, the Australian Crime Commission report and the retrospective sanctioning of 33 Russian athletes. Within the last week, the aftershock of these events came in the form of a 26-page report to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) from its former president Dick Pound.

A five-person working group, chaired by Pound, has submitted a report to WADA entitled "Lack of Effectiveness of Testing Programs." According to the Associated Press, Pound asserts that “anti-doping programs are failing and drug cheats are getting away scot-free because of a lack of will among sports organisations, governments and athletes”.

Our research – and the research of others in the field – corroborates this assertion; there is a perception that drug use in sport is more prevalent than official statistics might suggest. Pound argues that the “elephant in the room is the human factor, not the science, not the system”.

However, the ‘system’ does not always promote drug-free sport as effectively as it could.  Anti-doping has been dominated by detection-deterrence directives. This has given rise to the dramatic, yet ultimately futile, ‘cat and mouse game’ that characterises contemporary anti-doping in sport.

The disproportionate allocation of funding to developing detection methods – and to developing detectives – means that education has a very limited evidence base from which to design effective anti-doping education. The bias towards testing and compliance is also underscored by the scant attention paid to education in the Code and the absence of an International Standard for education.

Acknowledging the chinks in the system, WADA is recognising the merits of preventing doping in sport before it happens.  However, this proactive approach is likely to be substantially impeded if WADA complies with a recommendation put forward by Pound and reduces its research and education programmes to focus solely on testing and compliance. This concerns me because I have witnessed first-hand the burden of the compliance agenda on anti-doping education curricula. 

Quite simply, this agenda undermines the serious good that anti-doping programmes can do. This prohibitionist approach restricts what we are able to do to promote the ‘active ingredients’ of effective prevention. Indeed, I already believe it impinges on what we do now and an even greater focus on punitive measures will simply exacerbate the situation.

Typically, athletes attending an anti-doping session receive lots of factual information delivered in a didactic style. This content is presented to heighten awareness of the athlete’s responsibilities under the Code; it is hoped this combination will reduce their risk of inadvertent doping. Therefore, within just 45-minutes athletes might expect to receive information on checking medication, the risk of supplement use, testing procedures and an overview of their rights and responsibilities.

It is challenging to cover all this content, in an engaging and interactive way, and meet the needs of the audience. Anti-doping education also continues to be dogged by a lack of resources; it is imperative that education delivers not only effective approaches but also confirms that these programmes are delivered in the best possible ways. Without this evidence, sports’ unwary – but well-meaning – agencies may continue to focus on delivering key messages about compliance.

This approach is nothing more than information giving.  It is not education and it is unlikely to influence the toxic cocktail of events that often lead an athlete take their first steps into doping.  Pounds’ report only heightens my belief that we need to do more to prevent doping in sport; as researchers our work will continue to highlight the value of this commitment.

Key stakeholders need to feel that their combined efforts make a powerful difference to the pursuit of clean sport. I believe this can come from carefully planned education programmes that make the issue of drugs in sport relevant to everyone, not just the anti-doping manager of a sporting organisation.  In my view only then will the sporting community and its affiliates get behind the anti-doping movement and respond to Pound’s ‘call to arms’. Until then, a defensive approach to anti-doping will prevail and the 'human factor' will remain as the 'elephant in the room'.