Doped or Duped? Legacies of Anti-Doping Regulation in the Wake of Lance Armstrong

Kathryn Henne, The Australia National University

There is a lot of talk about Lance Armstrong, his legacy, and the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s (USADA) charges, which contend that he not only doped, but also spearheaded systematic doping within teams. With Armstrong opting out of the arbitration process, he faces a lifelong suspension from any sport following the World Anti-Doping Code—that is, competing, coaching, or holding any official position—and the loss of his seven Tour de France titles.

Perhaps this is not a big deal for a retired athlete who contends he is a victim of “an unconstitutional witchhunt,” especially one who retains support from sponsors and an expansive fan base. Perhaps this outcome is better for cycling, a sport that has been plagued by high-profile doping cases. Perhaps, but what does this case tell us about the workings of anti-doping regime itself?

Recent commentaries have accused USADA of hypocrisy,1 while others have pointed to the mismanagement of drug control.2  The judge presiding over Armstrong’s lawsuit against USADA, Sam Sparks, has also acknowledged these problems, first by calling USADA’s motives into question and then writing,

As mystifying as USADA’s election to proceed at this date and in this manner may be, it is equally perplexing that these three national and international bodies are apparently unable to work together to accomplish their shared goal—the regulation and promotion of cycling.

The three organizations to which he refers are USADA, USA Cycling, and the International Cycling Union (UCI).

These criticisms are worth taking seriously. Having ethnographically studied the anti-doping regime since 2007, I can attest that nearly every anti-doping official I have met has gone on record saying that “catching” Armstrong would be the anti-doping movement’s crowning achievement. In fact, many of them have stated that changes to the World Anti-Doping Code, which took effect in 2009, would make it possible. As I have written elsewhere,3 they often cite the growing number of signatories to the UNESCO International Convention Against Doping in Sport as evidence that this increasing government support can ensure more effective regulation and more punishments.

And, they are right. Well, sort of.

The U.S. Department of Justice has already closed its two-year investigation of Armstrong, and while USADA was able to put together a case against Armstrong, it still couldn’t “catch” him in the way that many regulators I have spoken with had hoped. They had expressed a desire for severe punishments, going so far as to say that he deserved something akin to the punishment endured by U.S. sprinter Marion Jones, a former World and Olympic Champion. She lost her Olympic gold medals and lucrative sponsorships, and she served a six-month prison sentence for perjury after finally admitting to doping. In contrast, Armstrong is largely unaffected.

With that in mind, we should ask if those kinds of punishments are really what the anti-doping advocates should want. Jones spent much of her prison sentence in solitary confinement and is a disenfranchised felon for the rest of her life. A mother of three, she cannot vote, and she is not eligible for employment in many workplaces—except luckily, the Women’s National Basketball Association. Getting behind fairer and safer sport is one thing; openly supporting broader, arguably unfair, punitive trends is another.

While I have yet to meet a professional or aspiring professional cyclist that likes Lance Armstrong or thinks he did not dope, stepping back to ponder these implications is important. Behind his case is something more troubling: a global anti-doping regime structurally fashioned to favor punishment, negating opportunities for more responsive regulation. By responsive regulation, I mean attempts to balance the use of punishment with modes of persuasion in contextually meaningful ways.4 

Mostly recently, for instance, the Biological Passport system yielded nine anti-doping violations days before the London Olympic Games. More generally over the years, the Court of Arbitration in Sport has overwhelmingly ruled against athletes appealing anti-doping violations. During my research in Australasia and the United States, I have witnessed athletes, particularly young men from working-class and ethnic minority backgrounds who perceive sport as a viable career pathway, endure lengthy violations for relatively minor and nonperformance-enhancing substance use. Dreams and livelihoods become jeopardized, because anti-doping regulation takes a punitive stance—sometimes even more so than the national justice system—rather than adopting more proactive and culturally sensitive measures.

While the case against Lance Armstrong may point to regulatory shortcomings, it may also be a mistake to suggest this case is indicative of the regime more broadly. I have encountered many zealous anti-doping advocates, but I have met just as many administrators committed to helping athletes navigate the complex web of rules woven by WADA. Currently, international rules actually limit local agencies’ abilities to deliver specialized programming in part because responsive agencies commit many resources to help athletes comply with WADA’s guidelines.

Thus, in the aftermath of Armstrong’s case and the actions taken by USADA, it seems timely to ask whether or not and how resources can be cancelled in proactive and responsive ways. To date, the legacies of anti-doping regulation are not fairer or safer sport, but an expanding list of athletes punished for violating the rules. Some of them have genuinely doped, but, at least in my own research, the majority has been duped by the system charged with preventing and deterring doping in sport.

1 Sally Jenkins. “Lance Armstrong Doping Campaign Exposes USADA’s Hypocrisy.” (August 25, 2012)

2 James Heathers. “Lance Armstrong Drops his Doping Fight with USADA – what now?” (August 24, 2012)

3 Kathryn Henne. “WADA, the Promises of Law and the Landscapes of Anti-Doping Regulation.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 33, no. 2 (2010): 306–25.

4 Ian Ayres and John Braithwaite. Responsive Regulation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992); John Braithwaite. Responsive Regulation and Restorative Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).