Sports stars strike a blow for dignity and liberty

The cyclists, tennis players and footballers taking a stand against the authoritarian, Kafkaesque anti-doping regime deserve our support.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

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So you log on to the official website. You access a confidential area. An online form appears. Using that form you mark down where you’ll be for a single hour between 6am and 11pm every single day for a three-month period. You know what it entails. During that hour, whether you’re at home or at work, whether it’s a Monday morning or a Saturday night, there’s a chance that some official-looking people will turn up and pass you a plastic container. They will then watch while you urinate into it.

You know they probably won’t turn up – but still, it’s a chance. And if you’re not there, if you’re not where you said you would be for those random one-hour periods when the men-in-suits turn up, the consequences could be personally devastating. Because if you miss three of these ‘meetings’ over an 18-month period, everything that you have worked for – everything – will be ruined.

Welcome to the guilt-inducing, paranoia-fostering reality that faces elite professional sportsmen and women across the world today. Athletes, footballers, tennis players – none is exempt. As of 1 January this year, the World Anti-Doping Association’s so-called ‘whereabouts’ system, based on a drug-testing regime implemented by UK Sport in 2005, stipulates that groups of high-level sportspeople, selected at the discretion of newly established National Anti-Doping Organisations, make themselves available to drug testers for one hour every day between 6am and 11pm, three months in advance. This includes any holiday periods. Though they are permitted to make last-minute changes to their schedules via text, phone or email, it is still quite an undertaking. Noting the extent of the current anti-doping measures, German cyclist Jens Voigt was moved to joke: ‘To go one step further, you would have to move in with me… I’m being controlled left, right and centre.’ (1)

A spokesman for the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA), Fredric Donze, is, not surprisingly, a little more enthusiastic about his organisation’s spying regime: ‘Because out-of-competition tests can be conducted anytime, anywhere, and without notice to athletes, they are one of the most effective means of deterrence and detection of doping and are an important step in strengthening athlete and public confidence in doping-free sport.’ (2)

Unfortunately for WADA, some professional sportspeople are rather less keen on the idea of having officialdom turn up any day of the week to conduct an impromptu drugs test. They are starting to fight back against what they described as a gross invasion of their privacy. British footballers, for one, have voiced opposition to the new approach. In November last year, Gordon Taylor of the Professional Footballers’ Association declared: ‘We feel to invade the privacy of a player’s home is a step too far.’ (3) Now stories are circulating that FIFpro, the umbrella group for football players’ unions, is planning a legal challenge to WADA’s plan of action (4). They will be joining an increasingly long queue.

Tennis player Rafael Nadal recently called the system a ‘disgrace’ and ‘intolerable’ (5). In January it emerged that a group of 65 Belgian cyclists, footballers and volleyball players has gone a step further. Brought together by Sporta, an organisation that looks after the interests of Belgian sports people, they have asked the Belgian Council of State High Court to rule on the ‘whereabouts’ system on the basis that it is in breach of the European Union’s privacy law. ‘[It] gives WADA a pass to invade the privacy of athletes’, said their lawyer Kristof De Saedeleer (6).

Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights – the right to privacy – might often be the legal refuge of the scoundrel, and more paradoxically a state-enforced liberty, but in this case the sports people’s recourse to it does capture a genuinely libertarian impulse. That is, it articulates a resistance to being treated as public property, to having your life permanently subject to the potential scrutiny of officialdom. The cause of the Belgian footballers and cyclists, athletes and volleyball players is a worthy cause, a blow, no matter how small, to be struck for those seeking a life beyond today’s authoritarian gaze.

Except that when it comes to sports stars, many people do not see it that way. Many feel that sportspeople, more than anyone else, need to be monitored. The ostensible reason for this is the pumped-up, steroidal hysteria around the use of ‘performance enhancing’ drugs, or ‘doping’, to use WADA’s parlance. The definition of what is legally and what is illegally ‘performance enhancing’ is largely arbitrary; why should the ingestion of one substance be deemed ‘doping’ while another substance can be approved as a dietary supplement? (7) This confusion seems to heighten the frenzy of WADA’s war on doping, as it becomes more and more suspicious of more and more ‘performance enhacing’ techniques, supplements and drugs. This is telling, because it is not clear scientific evidence that guides the war on drugs in sport, so much as a pernicious moralism that looks upon the ‘win, win, win’ mentality of the past as problematic.

The crusade against drugs has always been primarily a moral one. This is clear from the website of the International Association of Athletics Federations, where an article charting the history of athletics touches upon the professionalisation of atheletics during the 1980s: ‘Sadly, performance-enhancing drugs became more prominent at this time as well, jeopardising the moral fabric of sport as well as the health of and lives of young people.’ (Italics added.) (8) The blight of sport is implicit here: with money comes a desire to do whatever it takes to win. In this conflation of material greed with the desire to win lies the contemporary demonisation of the competitive urge. WADA, established in November 1999, is merely the institutional form of the new disdain for competitiveness itself.

It is possible to read into the contemporary moralisation of sport a broader historical and cultural rejection of the Victorian values with which sport was once infused: the robust, confident, competitive individualism that once underpinned sport. Things have certainly changed a lot since Tom Brown’s Schooldays. In the deathless phrasing of WADA’s code, sport is now to embody an image of nothing less than the countercultural good life, of ‘fun and joy’, ‘teamwork’, ‘respect for self and other participants’, ‘community and solidarity’… (9)

This means that sport now has an incredible amount to live up to. Or rather, those who participate professionally in sport have an incredible amount to live up to. They are no longer simply adept at throwing, running or kicking; they are to be vehicles of the good life, beacons of morality. It is not enough to be good at sport; one has to be good full stop. This is why elite sportspeople can be treated as public property, as objects of never ending official spying, monitoring and judgement. They are under continual pressure to prove their moral rectitude for the benefit of the public good. In the words of WADA, submission to the ‘whereabouts’ regime allows athletes to ‘show their commitment to doping-free sport’. The verb ‘show’ is crucial here: life outside of the sporting arena is no longer free of an audience. It has become part of sport-as-moral-spectacle. The athlete is expected to display just how ‘clean’ his sport is, to exhibit his ‘correct’ way of living.

In their resistance to these coercive demands, the cause of the Belgian 65 and other sportspeople should be loudly supported. For in their refusal to participate in WADA’s infernal pursuit of the spectre of excessive competition, they might restore to sport some of its integrity, and breathe life back into sport as sport: a glorious reality that stands apart from everyday life rather than being a moral correction to everyday life. And just as vitally, by not prostrating themselves before sport’s bureaucratic missionaries, by kicking against the expectation that they should be permanently available for testing and moral monitoring, they restore to themselves, and potentially to people in general, just a little bit of the dignity that the ever-suspicious authorities would like to strip away.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Tim Black looked at the meaning of the Dwain Chambers affair. Sean Collins described how baseball’s drug witch-hunts undermined the game. Dan Travis wondered who’s afraid of drugs in sport? Elsewhere, he lamented the collapse of school sport into mere activity and Matthias Heitmann argued that Tour de France competitors should be allowed to take drugs. Or read more at spiked issue: Sport.

(1) Drug testing has reached its limit, says German veteran, Daily Telegraph, 4 July 2008

(2) ‘Whereabouts’ doping rule to be challenged in court in Belgium, Daily Telegraph, 22 January 2009

(3) New drug test scheme is a ‘test too far’, says Taylor, Guardian, 12 November 2008

(4) Legal threat to anti-doping code, BBC News, 22 January 2009

(5) Doping notes: WADA seeks special meeting
, International Herald Tribune, 29 January 2009

(6) WADA faces court challenge in Belgium, USA TODAY, 27 January 2009

(7) Further examples of just how slippery the distinction is between what is legally and what is illegally performance enhancing abound. Why, for instance, is a shot of Erythropoietin (EPO) prohibited and training at high altitude not? Both serve the same end: the increased production of red blood cells. That the IAAF draws its lines in permanently shifting sand is clear when one notes that in 1999 caffeine and pseudo-ephredine were deemed to be performance enhancers, while in 2003 they were not.

(8) See the IAAF website here.

(9) See the WADA code here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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