What do we really learn from the history of anti-doping? On the process of constantly increasing restriction and control

By Marcel Reinold, University of Muenster, Germany

The question of whether we can really learn from history at all and, if so, what exactly we can learn for shaping the present and the future has been a crucial question in historiography since ancient times. On the one hand, modern historiography has usually emphasised that the analysis of the past does not allow us to draw reliable conclusions about the future since history is not a simple determined and predictable process. On the other hand, historical processes are not just limited to the past but somehow affect the present and future. By the analysis of the past (and an awareness for the present), historical research may uncover currently continuing, changing or ending processes. It might also indicate where we are actually heading and point to some relevant questions and problems.


Regarding the history of anti-doping, one long-lasting and still ongoing process is perhaps the most striking: anti-doping, over the last six decades, has to be characterised, first and foremost, as a process of constantly increasing restriction and control. Several points should be highlighted here: the anti-doping policy until the middle of the 1960s fundamentally differed from current procedures. One especially has to take into account that only a few sports organizations had implemented any kind of anti-doping rules. Apart from a few tests with a more experimental character, doping was neither controlled nor sanctioned at this time. A fundamental change began primarily from the second half of the 1960s when modern anti-doping with codified rules, tests and bans was gradually established. It was at this time, when sport physicians and sport governing bodies began to search for drugs in the athlete’s body. Urine samples were taken, especially at big cycling competitions and the Olympic Games. Over the course of time, anti-doping tests spread to other sports, championships and less important competitions. From the middle of the 1980s, tests were no longer simply conducted in competition, but were also performed out of competition in order to control the substances and methods used during a longer period of time in training. The introduction of out-of-competition testing led to today’s whereabouts system of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). WADA’s reporting system requires athletes to provide detailed personal information on their whereabouts on a year-round basis. In the late 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, not only urine but increasingly athletes’ blood became subject to control, since several popular doping substances and methods were not detectable in urine. Today, the athlete biological passport, with blood, steroid and endocrine modules, is at different stages of development and application. However, the control system of today is no longer simply limited to scientific tests. Demands for cooperation with authorities from outside of sport entered the debate, especially since the 1980s. The Festina-scandal in 1998 as well as later big revelations such as Balco in 2002, the operation against the network of the Spanish doctor Fuentes in 2006 and the Armstrong scandal in 2012 first and foremost showed that it was not conventional doping tests but investigative bodies primarily outside of sports which revealed not only the use of barely detectable substances and methods but also organised doping networks. To summarise, the development went from doping as an uncontrolled practice via the establishment of an anti-doping system with occasional in-competition-tests to a rigid monitoring system which constantly supervises athletes’ urine, blood and biological profiles, and, additionally, operates with investigative bodies outside of sports.


Increasing restriction and control of the anti-doping system has to be considered as a consequence of the increasingly challenging doping practices that have been entering high performance sport. The widespread use of barely detectable substances and methods used over a longer period of time in training, as well as the growing involvement of organised doping networks, made conventional in-competition tests evidently ineffective. The obvious ineffectiveness, not least, raised severe doubts on the willingness of sporting bodies to consequently combat doping. In short, dopers’ successful strategies to beat the system in connection with widespread criticism on supposedly lax anti-doping policies constantly questioned the actual performance of the anti-doping system in the past. Sporting bodies often enough met claims for stricter anti-doping policies immediately on a merely rhetorical level. Despite that major steps of adaption to the radically changing doping practices had been taken only with considerable delay, the historical development summarised above clearly shows that anti-doping in the long-term was forced to establish more effective measures. These, in turn, made anti-doping more and more restrictive since effectiveness and restriction are inherently connected in a system which primarily builds on control and punishment.


Assuming that athletes’ doping strategies will become even more challenging in the future, it is hardly conceivable that anti-doping actors will take a step back and modify anti-doping in a less restrictive way. As outlined above, this was never the case in anti-doping history. In fact, the opposite was true and is likely to continue in the near future: confronted with newly developed substances, methods and strategies to beat the system, anti-doping will be under considerable pressure to take even stricter measures in order to show hard-line policies and indicate system performance. In short, there is little doubt that we are still within a process of constantly increasing restriction and control. Historically, this strategy of combating doping obviously appeared much more adequate to answer criticisms and meet claims for more effective anti-doping than, for example, a shift to softer methods of social control. This is even more striking, as softer measures were paradoxically established to a growing extent in several fields outside sports, for example education, medicine or drug policy. In anti-doping, however, such a paradigm change would surely bear the risk of being denounced as an ineffective and lax policy.


Under these premises, the crucial question is how far can open societies really go in anti-doping? In fact, the application of urine and blood controls as well as the evaluation and collection of biological and other personal data normally require serious factual reasons. This is especially true within Western societies which explicitly highlight the values of personal freedom, self-determination and privacy. In high-performance sports, however, top-athletes are generally under supervision. It is hardly conceivable that people would tolerate such a system of control in other social fields. However, it is interesting to note that some newly introduced anti-doping measures also met with resistance at the beginning. The protests of cyclists against the introduction of doping tests in the 1960s, the riders’ protests at the Tour de France in 1998 against extensive police operations and some critical voices concerning WADA’s rigid whereabouts system exemplify that these measures were initially anything but a matter of course. However, the socialising effect of anti-doping was actually tremendous: in contrast to the protesting athletes in the 1960s, who considered tests as a rather humiliating practice, athletes today publish their testing results on their homepages as a means of showing conformity and proving clean performance. Despite the great power of socialisation on athletes and society as a whole, the crucial question remains: How far can anti-doping really go without losing its moral adequacy?