Duncan Mackay

High profile doping cases involving illicit and recreational drugs provoke strong reactions in the media. 

Observers query the logic of detecting social drugs in sport, penalising the athlete as if the perpetrator had committed the ultimate doping offence, cheating using a performance enhancing drug. Questions are raised about whether the testing programme is appropriately targeted and whether those who are caught using illicit and recreational drugs deserve sympathy and treatment for their addiction illness rather than severe sanctions for their misdemeanour. This is a difficult issue for the sports world which could be managed better. 

Firstly what drugs are we talking about? The Prohibited List published by the World Anti-Doping Agency includes several substances for which athletes might argue social drug use rather than any intent to enhance performance.  Among those substances are stimulants - amphetamines, including ecstasy, and cocaine, as well as the hallucinogenic, marijuana.  For some sports a restriction is placed on alcohol.  To be included on the prohibited list a substance should meet two of three stated criteria:

• Potential or actual performance enhancement

• Potential or actual risk to health

• Violation of the spirit of sport.

How do the illicit and recreational drugs measure up?  Most are obvious violations of the spirit of sport, drugs controlled by legislation, illegal to supply and possess; clearly against the spirit of sport.  There may be associated health risks - depending on specific circumstances - and the key question, whether they actually enhance performance depends upon individual circumstances.  Stimulant drugs do what they say, stimulate the body. 

Sufficient to improve performance?  Difficult to say. Did the player move faster, react more quickly or just keep running for longer, or was the performance actually below that expected? These subjective judgments follow the doping revelation as if to rationalize the offence. The player wasn’t playing that well, a reduction in sanction would be justified. Does that mean if the player is found to be an addict the offence should be increased, after all they could have been competing on several occasions under the influence and just not caught?

Secondly, social drug use may not be identified by out of competition testing which focuses on hormone and steroids substances, EPO in relevant endurance sports, and perhaps an occasional look for growth hormone.  Traditionally out of competition testing has targeted drugs used to enhance training, like anabolics. However athletes should not be complacent about testing around a competition. Athletes withdrawing late from an event may be screened for the full prohibited list as testers anticipate an association between doping and the withdrawal. But the fact that there will be ‘negative’ tests even though a prohibited substance has been used doesn’t help the drug-free message. As many of the illicit and recreational drugs are also addictive, it is like a ticking time bomb.

A third point worth making is that not all illicit and recreational drugs can be considered in the same way. Detection of cannabis may refer to earlier use as it can remain in the body for up to three months after consumption, stored in fat cells and gradually released in the body. 

This raises question about athletes being allowed a day off from sport – apparently not!  Arguing secondary inhalation is a non-starter, as Britain's Olympic relay gold medallist Mark Lewis (pictured) once did, the reporting level of marijuana takes this into account.

Stimulant drugs have a short life in the body and can be undetectable in a matter of 36 hours, particularly if assisted by large quantities of water. For athletes, cocaine could become a drug of choice, compared to alcohol; at least there is no hangover. Athletes have tried to explain the presence of cocaine in their system by referring to the amount that could be absorbed from handling banknotes. Apart from the visual image of athletes counting their cash, a lot of time would need to be spent to absorb a significant quantity.

At least an athlete’s reputation is in part salvaged by the emphasis on no intention to improve performance, but is it?  But in providing an explanation to justify why the finding should be considered a "specified substance" worth much less in the sanctions tariff, the athlete has to establish how the substance came to be in their body and that it was not intended to enhance performance. 

This interesting dilemma can lose friends quickly. Supply is a criminal offence in most countries, who will take the fall for a top athlete? And as for no intention to enhance performance, well that depends. Amphetamine used on the day of competition, yet somehow not detected out of competition the following day, is a lucky break for some. Sponsors, conscious of brand reputation, are not always impressed by athletes who seek to justify a lower level of drug use.

Perhaps the biggest trip wire is the impact on the ability to train with the team. Individual athletes can usually continue to train alone during the period of suspension, but what about the team player? Possibly banned from training as well as playing, now that is beginning to sound like a deterrent.

Michele Verroken is an international expert on anti-doping and integrity matters in sport. She has over 20 years experience of developing anti-doping policies and procedures for professional, Olympic and Paralympic sports. She developed the UK's national anti-doping policy, designed the Drug Information Database and now advises (among others) professional golf on its anti-doping policy. She is the founder of Sporting Integrity. More details on www.sportingintegrity.com