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Doping scandals make for fairer play

By Bronwyn Magdulski - posted Wednesday, 11 October 2006

There seems to be a mild panic overcoming Australian sports fans that the inherent fairness of sport is vanishing. I believe this panic is unfounded, at least for the moment. Are athletes really any more unethical than they ever were, or should we be reassured that we're just getting better at detecting and exposing the cheats?

I'd argue that we should be happy that sport is being cleaned up, and athletes who might consider breaking the rules are being confronted with the public shaming of others who strayed.

Sport is big business. There's no doubt that the pressure on athletes to perform - at any cost - is enormous. But hasn't that competitive spirit always burned ferociously? In the 1904 Olympics the winner of the marathon, Thomas Hicks from the United States, was found to have taken brandy and strychnine to aid his performance. He won, but it took hours to revive him once he collapsed after the race. In the 1967 Tour de France, Tom Simpson collapsed and died with amphetamines and reportedly brandy in his system, and several tubes of amphetamines still in his racing jersey.


In 1928, international athletics' governing body, International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), responded to constant doping issues by banning the practice, but they had to rely on athletes' honesty because of a lack of available testing techniques.

In 1966 soccer's federation, Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), and cycling's Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) also banned doping, and in 1967 the International Olympic Committee joined the cause. The World Anti Doping Agency was created in 1999. This is all in response to problems that included overwhelming suspicious domination by some athletes or nations at sporting events (such as the Soviets in the 1954 world weightlifting championships). Although doping techniques have not disappeared, testing techniques are improving, hence more drug cheats are being picked up.

There's more to victory than money. But commercial interest has in some cases increased athletes' potential earnings many times over, and paying the ultimate price is worth more now than back in the good old days.

It would be naive to suggest that athletes have not taken advantage of medical advancements that have provided chemical benefits that drug-testing authorities have struggled to keep up with. Some may cheat, but there will always be those who will refuse to even entertain the idea. Those athletes will do everything they can, within the rules, to win - and undoubtedly they don't want to be beaten by someone who has cheated.

Of course athletes are people too - and that means they're inherently susceptible to falling victim to human error and temptation. In this increasingly commercial and visible environment, sporting bodies have a unique opportunity to make good their image and reputation, and show that they are able to deal professionally and effectively with unacceptable behaviour from their athletes.

This doesn't mean over the top, disproportionate responses every time there is public outrage about something. It means disciplinary measures that are clearly defined and communicated to the athletes. It involves accountability for inappropriate behaviour, and transparency and fair dealing with the athlete when their case is being presented and evidence heard. It requires an athlete to be very clear about the consequences if they do choose to take the risk of breaking the rules.


Doping tests were introduced as a response to problems that were clearly creating an unfair playing field. As the techniques are improved and testing becomes more widespread, more cheats will be exposed. International media and the Internet, expert commentary panels and television replays allow us to have a greater level of scrutiny than ever before.

As an athlete I'm cheered by the level of cheats we're seeing exposed. I'm glad that athletes are being held accountable - and I hope the exposure serves to deter some would-be cheats from taking the risk and further sullying the tradition-rich waters of modern sport.

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First published in the Canberra Times on August 29, 2006.

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About the Author

Bronwyn Magdulski, a member of the Australian bobsleigh team, is a lawyer and former residential supervisor at the Australian Institute of Sport. She is a co-host of Local ABC Radio’s Grandstand program with Tim Gavel.

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