Doping debate part of 'a war for the soul of sport'

With all the scandals — from FIFA ethics to Russian doping — it can, at times, feel as if the sports world is in constant crisis. According to author Roger Pielke Jr., the lines between right and wrong have been blurred, resulting in "a war for the soul of sport."

Author Roger Pielke Jr., on the blurring of right and wrong

Russian star Maria Sharapova was suspended from pro tennis after testing positive for the banned drug meldonium. (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

With all the scandals — from FIFA ethics to Russian doping — it can, at times, feel as if the sports world is in constant crisis.

According to author Roger Pielke Jr., the lines between right and wrong have been blurred, resulting in "a war for the soul of sport."

Pielke, a professor and the head of the Sports Governance Center at the University of Colorado, spoke with CBC Sports about this topic, which he explores in his recent book The Edge: The War Against Cheating and Corruption in the Cutthroat World of Elite Sport.

CBC Sports: Can you explain why you say that sport is the ultimate human contrivance?

Pielke: I think it's safe to say that alongside religion, sport is one of the most shared global values. And yet there are no stone tablets or scripts that tell us how it ought to be constructed. The controversies and issues we have are direct products of the rules we create.

CBC Sports: In your book you cite the "caffeine test" as an example of how rules sometimes obscure our intentions. Can you explain?

Pielke: Caffeine is a normalized, socially accepted drug that is allowed in sport — despite evidence that it aids performance. And yet we don't have sufficient scientific understanding of many banned substances. Their [athletic enhancing] potential is plausibly less than caffeine, so why do we bother banning [them]?

CBC Sports: You also say that banned substances in some cases may be beneficial to athletes' health.

Pielke: Human growth hormone, for example, is being looked at because it possibly has medicinal [application]. It has even been suggested that EPO can potentially aid recovery.

The point is that the boundary between prohibited performance enhancement and medical benefit is not a bright line. There is no illusion that these are easy questions, but they're worth asking.

CBC Sports: Can you elaborate on how rules that attempt to regulate the method as opposed to the result can also lead to confusion?

Pielke: WADA, for instance, has expressed a desire to prohibit caffeine pills but says it's OK for athletes to drink multiple espressos before competing.

It's also acceptable to train at high altitude or hermetically seal rooms in your house to simulate altitude — these methods of boosting your red blood cell count [to increase your endurance] are legal but taking EPO to generate the same effect isn't.

Ultimately, it's the athlete's health that's affected. And if they, along with the fans, think it's OK to take caffeine pills, then maybe that should be the rule?

CBC Sports: So where does fair advantage end and cheating begin?

Pielke: We like to think of cheating in quasi-religious, right and wrong [terms] but cheating is really breaking the rules that make sport possible. And this is the interesting part because we, at least in principle, get to decide the rules. 

In my book I discuss Victoria Azarenka [who on the verge of defeat in the semifinals of the 2013 Australian Open called for a 10-minute medical timeout in order to regain her composure]. For some this is cheating, for others gamesmanship. Elite sport is filled with grey, making it hard to find the ethical edge that separates tactics from cheating.

CBC Sports: But why is doping seen as a bigger concern in the Olympics than it is in some other sports?

Pielke: We have different values in different sports. The notion of athletic purity is a long-standing Olympic ideal but, as I said, there are no more bright lines. 

If Michael Jordan had been in the Olympics when he received an IV treatment [allowing him to play Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals against the Jazz, where he scored 38 points in 44 minutes to carry the Bulls to a two-point victory], then he would have been suspended for four years. But Jordan playing with the flu is one of the NBA's storied tales.

I often wonder what would happen if athletes were allowed to set the rules. Would they view doping differently than WADA?

CBC Sports: So why don't we hear more from athletes?

Pielke: People who are retired or further along in their career are [often] more willing to speak. But it can cost you. Nick Symmonds [a U.S. Olympic runner] is a good example of an athlete that has spoken out on governance issues and paid for it in terms of sponsorship. Look at what Colin Kaepernick has received for speaking out.

But there are athletes, by virtue of who they are and their standing, that can start a conversation. Say Venus Williams on the issue of equal pay in tennis — she really was a leader in carrying that forward.


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