SSA Blog: Sports ethical line

The spotlight of doping in elite sport shines on. Over recent years, heroes have fallen, state-sponsored doping has been uncovered and numerous high-profile athletes have been sanctioned, stripped of medals and banned from competing following evidence of doping violations. Last week, Sir Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky were back in the news, casting further aspersions on the reputation of elite cycling…

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On 5th March 2018, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee released a statement declaring that, Team Sky ‘crossed an ethical line’ in their use of Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs). Specifically, the DCMS allege that the drugs administered, whilst therapeutic, were also devised and delivered to boost Wiggins’ performance levels.

"Drugs were being used by Team Sky, within World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) rules, to enhance the performance of riders and not just to treat medical need,"                              DCMS Select Committee (05/03/18).

This ‘ethical line’ presents a problem for sponsors and partners. Brands showcase their vision and values through their sponsorships to create a favourable position with the sports’ fans. How then to rationalise that sponsorship when a sports person or team follow the letter of the law, breaks no rules, but cross an ‘ethical line’. Practices are either legal or banned.

This might seem like a cynical stance, but literature from elite sport supports it. Smith and Stewart, in their 2015 overview of doping in sport, highlighted how athletes are pressured to use substances to enhance their performance whilst remaining ‘clean’. This includes the possibility for an athlete benefiting from elevated doses of a banned substance via a TUE. Athletes know natural talent is not sufficient to reach the top echelons of performance and competition. To reach this level, advanced training, coaching, supplements and substances were cited as a necessity. Before financial incentives even figure, the concept of sporting failure is less desirable than the threat of sanction for a doping violation or the potential risk to their health

Herein lies the issue with TUEs; most banned substances are those devised to cure illness but may also produce a performance enhancing effect. Like anyone, athletes get ill, suffer from chronic ailments and pick up injuries. A TUE is then required for the necessary medicine to help the athlete recover and the grey area of performance enhancement opens. A grey area that athletes, teams, doctors and organisations can venture into to pursue ‘legitimate’ marginal gains. In this pursuit, morality and ethics do not form part of the equation, legality, as stated by Overbye and Wagner (2013) in the international journal of drug policy, is the name of the game.

The researchers argue that whilst TUEs are less efficient than using banned substances in enhancing performance, manipulating the system to gain a TUE is infinitely more accessible, safe and low-risk. Indeed, they highlight that in a cohort of 638 elite athletes in Denmark, only 2% had ever applied for a TUE and had that application rejected. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that a general distrust of the TUE system’s effectiveness in anti-doping exists.

With TUEs increasingly under the spotlight, brands partnering with elite sport must consider a response strategy to stories such as the one involving Wiggins and Team Sky. Whilst the DCMS’ conclusion over Team Sky’s TUE use may seem reasonable to many, it concludes that no rules were broken. In elite sport, this is all that matters to teams when it comes to doping.

Brands face a quandary. Should they stand by teams and athletes whose use of medication is questioned? Should they support athletes that fail tests due to innocent mistakes rather than deliberate cheating?

Controversially, Head and Nike stood by Maria Sharapova following her positive test for Meldonium in 2016. Porsche and Tag Heuer in contrast, terminated their contracts with the Russian star. Can the direct sporting performance values of Nike and Head help explain their stance vs those of Sharapova’s more lifestyle-based partnerships and the subsequent lack of negative backlash for all?

Athletes deserve the right to compete on a level playing field and to be safe when doing so. Anti-doping regulations and the TUE system should exist, but both apparently require more stringent regulation and enforcement to protect clean athletes and the sponsors involved in the sport. The idea that an athlete ends up on the right side of the rules but the wrong side of a so-called ethical line should be an anathema to all parties involved.

Only the governing bodies of sport can make the rule changes required to protect both athletes and sponsors. However, they seem unwilling or unable to make those difficult decisions. It may be time to take that responsibility away from organisations that are so intimately linked with the public perception of the sports they are policing. Maybe supporting organisations such as WADA could provide the next sponsorship opportunity for a forward-thinking brand.

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