The Goal of Anti-doping Is Not to Eradicate Doping

By Joe Lindsey

What does it mean to “win” the fight against doping?

Is it to improve the testing to the point where it can catch every cheater? To completely eradicate the flow of legitimate medicines repurposed for doping use, and to totally shut down the use of all other substances – like Trenbolone, or designer steroids like BALCO’s THG – which have no accepted human use but which still attract cheaters? To create a culture where no athlete would even think to seek an unfair advantage from drugs?

It might sound depressing, but a total victory is, I think, impossible. Human nature is to seek an edge. We see cheaters in every walk of life, after all; to assume sports is different somehow is naïve. And when it comes to stopping the flow of drugs or perfecting testing – either the tests themselves or the way they’re used – while both would be impressive achievements, the scientific and logistical obstacles simply put them out of reach.

So if it’s human nature to find advantages – legal or no – and we acknowledge that some cheaters may always be able to evade detection, is anti-doping hopeless? Far from it. The job of anti-doping is only partly to catch and punish dopers who break the rules. That is a task, not a goal, and it serves the larger purpose: to make it possible for athletes in all sports to compete, and win, clean.

Why does that matter? Why do we even care? A persistent argument holds that the fight against doping is misguided and a waste of resources; instead, simply change the rules to allow doping, and regulate it. There are several problems with that argument, starting with the fact that there is no way to allow unrestricted doping. A drug such as Trenbolone, for example, is a livestock steroid; it’s not approved for any human medical use in any country. But it was a key ingredient in a doping cocktail (called The Duchess) used in the Russian institutional doping ring. To try to allow athletes access to it while preventing other human use (for which athletes? Pro? Non-pro but elite? Collegiate? Scholastic?) is an instant regulatory mess that proves one thing only: you can’t allow unrestricted doping, only restricted, regulated doping. That’s not materially different than what exists now, where some drugs are allowed and others are not; there will always be some substance or method on the other side of the line.

Crucially, not all athletes want to dope; few start out in sport seeking to cheat to win – it’s the necessity of it that corrupts them into accepting it, and their acceptance then perpetuates the cycle. Ethics are the basis of rules, and sport is, at its most simple element, a game that is played according to rules. The fundamental basis of the rules for any sport is the ethics of fair play. Allowing doping literally turns the idea of sport upside down; it turns ethics from a floor into a ceiling.

Finally, sport is entertainment, to be sure. But not only that; it’s a distillation of human qualities like determination and perseverance, the very heart of the human stories that captivate us. If we open sports to doping, we lose the human spirit that makes them transcendent. “Clean” simply has to be possible.

There are a lot of ideas floating around right now about the “how” of accomplishing that – essentially, that anti-doping has to be truly independent (first and foremost financially). That’s a subject that deserves its own column. But first, we have to understand why it’s so vital.

In professional cycling in the 1990s, doping was endemic – perhaps more than any other professional sport in the history of sports. It had not always been so. But the advent in the late 1980s of extremely effective oxygen vector drugs like EPO, and the utter lack of any doping test for them, or even an anti-doping organization that would administer a test if one existed, proved a devastating combination. The best estimates I know, which come from riders in the era, hold that by the late 1990s, at least three-quarters of all professional cyclists were doping with EPO. At races like the Tour de France, the percentage leapt to the mid 90s. Clean athletes like Festina’s Christophe Bassons were so rare they were almost singular exceptions.

And yet, almost every pro cyclist from that era regrets that he had to dope to compete, let alone have a chance to win. The Festina scandal at the 1998 Tour de France was the event that literally birthed WADA and the modern anti-doping movement. WADA has had its setbacks and failures. I’d even go so far as to say that, if it is not reformed, modern anti-doping is doomed by its structure to fail, with the Russian conspiracy as a harbinger of what’s to come. But for a time, WADA and its partner organizations have achieved, in the sport of cycling, something remarkable: the end of the simple necessity of doping.

Riders today still dope, to be sure. But it is not now necessary to do so just to be a pro. What anti-doping achieved was a partial, tenuous, but essential victory: in arguably the most dope-soaked sport in the Olympic movement, a space was carved out where it was possible for a rider to compete, and even win, while clean. Finally, there was no need for regret. The cultural change has been remarkable: riders can now both speak out in favor of clean racing without fear, and condemn colleagues who test positive. Both were anathema in the 90s and 2000s.

But this is a delicate and fragile victory. It requires constant vigilance to defend, and relies almost entirely on athletes’ trust that the anti-doping community is both effective and ethical. But defending, and expanding that zone, has to be the primary goal for anti-doping.

I would love for the end game for USADA and WADA and all the other anti-doping organizations to be for their mission statements to read, in part, “In 20 years, we want to put ourselves out of business.” But the reality is that we will always need regulators – in sport as in all walks of life. As long as we do, the definition of success has to be both relevant and achievable. Not to stop all cheaters. Not to eradicate doping. But to create a space where clean athletes are protected and valued and feel that hard work and talent and luck will be enough. If we can do that, we don’t have to stop every doper. The cheaters will exist, but they’ll be the anomaly, the outlier. Sports culture will prize not just great competition, but great, clean, competition. And anti-doping will be a success.

Joe Lindsey is a journalist who covers sports topics (primarily cycling), health and fitness, science and environmental topics. He has been freelancing professionally since 1998 and has been published in a number of national magazines including Wall Street Journal, Forbes.com, Bicycling, Outside, Men's Journal, 5280 and more.