Credit: Alexander Grey via Unsplash

Doping or the Wrong Medication?: The Systemic Issue of Doping in Sports

By Henry Tsang

“Twenty-plus-year career, 500 drug controls worldwide, in and out of competition. Never a failed test. I rest my case”. – Lance Armstrong

Paul Pogba, whose name is synonymous with talent, flair and criticism, was found guilty of a doping offence in February and given a four-year ban from football. A flurry of questions have been raised about the integrity of football and sport as a whole. Pogba is banned until 2027, throwing his future prospects in the top leagues down the drain. The last high-profile name in football tarnished through doping was the current Manchester United goalkeeper, Andre Onana, in 2021, who tested positive for Furosemide, which is used to hide the presence of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). Even the biggest stars of football have failed to consistently refrain from taking PEDs. The Argentine legend, Diego Maradona, famously tested positive back in 1991 and then again in 1994, for Ephedrine, used to avoid fatigue from his brutal training regime.

Dr Grigory Rodchenkov is known for his involvement in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and for his unique reasoning on why people take PEDs. Dr Rodchenkov’s unique perspective on sport’s doping Problem, stems from his role as the former World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Director for the Moscow laboratory, before he fled to Los Angeles in 2014. This came after reports came out that he orchestrated the most elaborate doping ploy for Russia over successive Olympic games. The scale of the Russians’ exploits beggars belief: breaking tamperproof Berlinger urine bottles and swapping in clean urine collected months prior, working overnight “like a Swiss watch”. The fact that a country can circumvent every modern anti-doping mechanism in place and defeat the entire system means that the whole of sport must be brought under the spotlight.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was far too soft on the Russians during the entire process, refusing to fully expel them out of international competition. Instead, they took a half-and-half position by letting Russian athletes compete under the Russian Olympic Committee, which pleased nobody except their own ego and President Putin. It is clear the governing bodies do not effectively police rule breakers with the entirety of sport being thrown into disrepute because it does not suit their agenda. It undermines every athlete’s hard work.

Certain sports are within the crosshairs more than others, namely, cycling and Athletics, which account for 14% and 16% of positive tests respectively. The most infamous athlete to be caught for doping was the once-revered Lance Armstrong, who won seven consecutive Tour de France titles over six years, which was made even more impressive with his battle with cancer during the same time period. However, it exposed the endemic culture of doping around elite cycling. His reasoning for doping: in an imperfect system, he had to because PEDs were an open secret yet officially condemned. His claims appears to be validated by a randomised study conducted in 2011 by WADA that showed 57% of competitors admitted to doping within the 12 months. This was miles away from the official WADA estimate of 1-2% with numerous experts in the field not being surprised by the results: John Hoberman at the University of Texas called the entire system out for building “incentives to dope itself in such a way” that are completely irresistible. There is such a cult of celebrity around top-level athletes that incentivises them to cross the line between the relentless pursuit of success and unethical sportsmanship.

On the face of it, doping seems to be a simple moral question for most athletes: play clean and respect the athletes. On inspection, the reality at the top level of competition appears to be far more opaque. Nobody enters sports wanting to take PEDs, but as you climb higher in the league tables, they slowly become a facet of sport that is inescapable. This toxic culture of winning at all costs must be stopped, if any progress is to be made against doping. Turning a blind eye to the problem puts all athletes at risk.


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