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Doping: Why Some Athletes are Reluctant to Speak Out

article by Kelsey Erickson and Susan Backhouse

New research exploring whistleblowing in sport shows that athletes are generally hesitant to report doping. This is despite the fact that these same athletes are opposed to personally using banned substances.

This hesitation can largely be put down to the fact that whistleblowing on doping presents a true moral dilemma – with two equally valid and demanding moral options. As an athlete, do you report doping behaviour to protect the integrity of sport, or keep quiet to protect the individual’s career, reputation and well-being?

While on the surface reporting doping may seem straightforward, it rarely is. There are often multiple variables to consider – an athlete may share the same coach who is administering the banned substances, may be friends with the person, or may feel pressured (by other athletes) to remain quiet. Then there are the potential social consequences for the whistleblower – being shunned, bullied or discredited.

Despite the reluctance among athletes to report doping, the use of prohibited substances and methods arguably threatens the integrity of sport. And this is in part why anti-doping governing bodies worldwide are increasingly recognizing the critical role that whistleblowers can play in disclosing doping behavior.

Best foot forward

The updated World Anti-Doping Code now includes provisions to reduce – or eliminate – doping sanctions if athletes committing an anti-doping rule violation provide “substantial assistance” to authorities. This is a significant move as it offers an incentive for people to assume the role of whistleblower.

What this means in real terms is that if an athlete provides information on someone else’s doping behaviours, their own doping penalty may be reduced. In the UK, athletics athlete Bernice Wilson experienced this when her proposed doping sanction was reduced from 40 to 10 months after she gave information about her coach’s involvement. He in turn received a lifetime ban from sport.

To further incentivise whistleblowing, considerable resources have been directed towards anonymous reporting hotlines. This includes the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Speak Up! platform and its accompanying whistleblowing program, which outlines the rights whistleblowers have in these situations.

This is a positive and necessary step forward, but it is questionable whether policy and procedures will sufficiently address the inherent complexity of whistleblowing – or diminish the significant personal costs that can follow disclosure.

Speaking out

Former British marathon runner Mara Yamauchi has previously written on her personal blog about the issues surrounding whistleblowing in sport. In her post: “Doping: athletes speaking out” Yamauchi lists ten reasons she believes underpin athletes’ hesitation towards whistleblowing on doping.

Based on her experience as an international athlete, the list essentially reiterates the true moral dilemma that whistleblowing presents – will it be worth it? Will anyone listen? How will others regard you after you disclose the information?

On top of all the points raised by Yamauchi, there is also the issue that, historically, whistleblowing incidents in sport have generally not been received well. The consequences of speaking out on doping in sport can be severe.

You only have to look at Yulia Stepanova and Vitaly Stepanov – the Russian couple who blew the whistle on doping practices in Russian athletics – to see the impact it can have. For this couple, their lives have been changed forever by their decision to come forward with information on systematic doping and criminal behaviour in Russia. They have had to relocate to a new country for their own safety and the negative reactions towards their choice to whistle-blow continue – Stepanova has been called a traitor by her former coach and was banned from taking part in the Rio Olympics in 2016.

State of sport

Closer to home, a recent piece in The Guardian outlined numerous disincentives for speaking out in British sporting culture. These include things such as athletes being marginalized, ostracized and losing lottery funding. Not to mention the possibility that a future career in sport – such as becoming a coach – can be jeopardised.

Given sport and the public’s reactions towards whistleblowing cases to date, those involved in sport will no doubt be watching closely to see how whistleblowing incidents are dealt with going forward.

Uncovering doping in sport often depends on the willingness of those aware of – or suspecting – doping behaviours to speak up. So it is critical that sport creates and maintains a culture that is open and supportive of people coming forward with information on wrongdoing. Because without this, voices will likely remain silenced and doping behavior undisclosed.

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