Flat White

Drugs in sport? Let’s go all the way

28 July 2019

5:04 PM

28 July 2019

5:04 PM

In light of the recently renewed drama between Aussie swimmer Mack Horton and Chinese champion Sun Yang, there has been increased interest in the role that Australian and international sporting authorities play in standing up to drug cheats. But with harsher penalties and more rigid doping requirements, the incentive to cheat will always remain. Likewise, chemists, coaches and countries will continue to find ways to skirt them to satisfy the demand for cheating. Instead of continuing this tug of war, why not reform the industry altogether with drug-induced sporting codes, run parallel to their existing ones?

Australia’s comprehensive range of washed-up athletes need no longer throw for prize money at Wimbledon or commit a drug driving offence to stay in the limelight. Instead, we should let them become productive members of society, competing using performance-enhancing drugs to improve modern science and entertain us in the process. Sound bizarre to you? Morally objectionable, perhaps? I personally believe it is time to consider unorthodox solutions to this pervasive problem, for we currently have nothing to lose… and for many of our cheating athletes, neither do they.

Reduce incentives to cover up cheating to make existing sporting codes fairer

The case for cheating in professional sports is merely one of incentives. One of, if not the first thing someone learns in a high-school economics class is that at market equilibrium, an increase in demand will always result in an increase in supply. Even the dimmest of our elected officials pretend to understand this… unless we’re talking about the illicit drug market. The main reason the war on drugs in western countries has failed is because of our focus on supply rather than minimising the cultural factors that increase demand. Where there is enough demand, there is always an incentive to supply to capitalise on the increased prices.

Some countries, such as Portugal and the Netherlands, have acknowledged through their drug decriminalisation policies that people who want to obtain illicit substances will always be able to. Instead of prohibiting these substances, they have treated personal drug dependency as a health issue and invested in schemes that support rehabilitation. This has given drug users an incentive to be open about their usage and overcome their demons. By focusing on the demand side as a health issue, Portugal has consistently seen some of the lowest rates of drug mortality in Europe. The same demand-focussed approach is required in professional sports because there are inherent cultural features of top-level sporting that incentivise people to cheat.

It could be argued that focussing on demand would mean increasing penalties for athletes caught cheating, and while that is certainly an option, I’m quite confident that it won’t work for everyone. Deterrence works for rational humans in rational circumstances. For people who have spent their whole life training to have a gold medal or trophy a mere steroid treatment away from their grip, the negative consequences of cheating are marginal. Deterrence theory punishments like lifetime sporting bans serve as nothing more but an incentive to hide their activities further. This could explain Sun Yang’s involvement in smashing blood vials used for drug testing in September 2018, or why Lance Armstrong has no regrets about doping to the top of the cycling world.

The failure of deterrence theory is not unique to professional sporting cheats. In Queensland, methamphetamine cooks risk up to 25 years imprisonment, while academic fraudsters face expulsion and rejection from other tertiary institutions if caught. But yet these offences still persist, because those who are in situations dire enough to commit them have already crossed the point of no return. For many athletes, the potential reward outweighs the risk because they have little to lose.

The current punishment regime also doesn’t provide immediate feedback for poor behaviour – many athletes are tested for steroids months after they have already competed in their events. Do you stop speeding altogether after getting a speeding ticket in the mail weeks after the offence, or do you make sure to look out for fixed speed cameras more often?

By having another sporting code to fall back on for drug cheats, we reduce the extreme punishment of being caught, which reduces the incentive to hide it at all costs. I’m not saying that this is foolproof; we would still have drug cheats in our existing codes, but anything that makes cover-ups less alluring is a step in the right direction. A doping sporting code run parallel to their existing codes would at least allow these extraordinary humans to redeem a sense of purpose within. If it turns out there is no market for such a sporting code, we have lost nothing in the process.

Remove rent-seeking from sport

It may or may not be news to you that the Australian government foots the bill for drug testing in Australian sporting codes. In the 2019-20 financial year, the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) is set to receive more than $15 million in taxpayer funding to police private sporting codes. Although equivalent to a rounding error, the idea of the taxpayer should foot the bill for private sporting code drug testing is frankly absurd, given the profitability of sport in Australia and the widespread subsidies they readily put their hand out for.
Would the taxpayer be comfortable footing the bill for everyone’s road safety certificates? There would at least be negative externalities to reduce with such a scheme (i.e. road fatalities), unlike ASADA’s testing regime. ASADA essentially provides taxpayer-funded insurance to highly profitable sponsors and sporting codes, who are more than capable of paying for the services themselves.

There is no reason why these costs cannot be picked up by the lucrative sporting industry and recouped through ticket sales, merchandise and sponsorship. Drug testing might be an essential service for sporting enthusiasts, but it is most certainly not something of a priority for those of us who would rather watch paint dry. I frankly could not care if our cricket players started doping – it might make me interested enough to watch it! And whatever drugs the Australian rugby team are taking at the moment, they are certainly not performance-enhancing ones.

Pharmaceutical patriotism

What would the Olympics, the FIFA World Cup and other international sporting events be without a bit of blind patriotism? In drug-enhanced sporting codes, we could keep the love of our country alive by restricting athletes to steroids designed in their own country. Instead of growing up idolising people who kick a ball for a living, our children could grow up inspired to improve medical science for the ages. Steroid competition is the shot in the arm (pun intended) that Australia’s fledgeling pharmaceutical industry desperately needs. Let’s start an International Doping League.

All humour aside, doping in professional-level sports is a serious issue that is not going away any time soon, so it’s time we looked at unconventional solutions. Even if my proposed fix does not solve the rampant rent-seeking and cheating, don’t you want to watch it just to see what happens?

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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