Dimeo on doping: Stirling professor talks to Brig

14 mins read

by Shannon Scovel

The UK Anti-Doping Agency designated May 21-27 as “Clean Sport Week,” and to learn more about doping policy, performance-enhancing drugs and the current debate around athlete performance, Brig caught up with a global expert on doping policy.

Dr. Paul Dimeo of the University of Stirling is one of the world’s foremost scholars and policy influencers in the world of anti-doping. Together with his colleague, Verner Møller, he recently published their book ‘The Anti-Doping Crisis in Sport: Causes, Consequences and Solutions’. Dimeo has also spoken with national and international press about his work, and, in this interview with Brig, he shared insight on the book-writing process, the progression of doping policy and his optimistic view on the future of sports doping debates.

What has been the reaction to the book so far, and how does that differ from what you expected?

So far, mostly okay. There are a few ideas in it which people find a little bit controversial, so we basically put out a couple of press releases summarising the final conclusions we proposed. One or two are not very practical, so they’ve kind of led to different forms of responses, but overall I think the book is about how athletes experience anti-doping [and] some of the problems which are inherent in it.

I think, in that sense, organisations like the World Players’ Association have actually seen [the book] as valuable for their work because they work specifically with athletes and protecting their rights and their responsibilities. I haven’t yet had any reply from the World Anti-Doping Agency or anyone like that, but a few journalists have shown some interest. I was invited to talk to a sports science group in Holland last week and got some interesting questions about the nature of the policy, and I was invited on the radio – national radio in Australia – so, again, it was a lot of focus on what it means for governance, policy and potential ways forward. So it has been an interesting time, and a little bit of a mixed response, but largely positive.

How long did it take to write the book?

Well, we put together the idea in the summer of 2015, and the proposal stage takes three or four months, so it was about 18 months of research and writing, and then four or five months of the final stages of editing, polishing and arguing over the book cover image and all that sort of thing. Obviously there is a bit of time lag in the final printing stage, so from start to finish, probably close to three years, but the actual work was probably about 18 months.

I saw in an interview that you believe that the zero-tolerance policy is unjust. Is it possible to decrease the incentives to dope?

Well, this is one of the solutions that we have in the book – if you want to decrease the incentives, you probably need to decrease the financial rewards, or at least address the disparity between the rewards for world leaders and the rest of the field. Unfortunately, I think sport, and the sports industry, and athletes themselves probably don’t really want to do this.

I think the hierarchy of who is the champion, and who gets all the accolades and, therefore, who gets the sponsorship deals and the image rights, that just seems to be an integral part of sport. However, if we’ve accepted that as an integral part of sport, then we need to accept that there is motivation to dope, and that motivation is not going to go away, no matter how much you educate athletes or try to persuade them that fair play or integrity is a good idea.

The fact is that those incentives are really, really powerful. Now obviously there’s the finance, but there is also the national prestige. There is the individual sort of career and image and status, but a lot of doping cases actually come in moments where athletes are trying to recover. They want to come back after a period of absence because they aren’t making any money, so, in actual fact, the sort of bottom end of this spectrum is important as well because it’s not just the winning, it’s just being able to maintain any form of career or income, that is sometimes the most important thing.

Do you have any advice for journalists to avoid sensationalizing doping or painting dopers as evil?

Again, we can talk about categories of dopers. Clearly we have those people who have a long-term record of participating in organised systematic cheating, and they may well get a four-year ban or they may get a lifetime ban, but in my personal opinion that should almost be enough to have a lifetime of stigma and not be allowed to participate in the sports industry. Lance Armstrong is a good example, but previous to that, people like Ben Johnson were just never allowed to have a career. So I think that’s questionable, from an ethical and moral point of view.

Another category of dopers are those who have done it accidentally or not done it that badly, but that, even relatively innocuous cases, can still hang over athletes for a long time. A famous case in Scotland is that of Alain Baxter, who used an American version of a Vicks inhaler, lost his bronze medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics, and that is what he is most well known for, so his reputation has never really recovered from what was essentially an accidental case of doping.

Athletes who use recreational drugs, like cocaine and marijuana and such,  probably need even more support. They are using those drugs for a reason unrelated to sport or cheating, they probably or potentially have personal issues which need counselling and rehab and support. Part of what we say in the book is that there is a lack of humanity, a lack of a consideration and sympathy for people because this label of a doper is largely created with cheating, with immortality, with corruption.

You mentioned the potential future of gene-doping in your book. What do you think the implications of that will be in the future? Do you think that will become the new version of doping?

Probably. There is some evidence that it is happening now, but not a huge amount of evidence. It’s going to be very difficult to detect. There are all sort of different methods for doing it – it depends on which genes you are targeting, what you are trying to achieve and at what stage in the athletes career.

For example, if there was a technology to actually change the genetic structure of an embryo, well of course you’re in a completely different territory, absolutely, into engineering a human being to try and make them into an athlete. I think we’re into a different world, and it’s not a world that the current anti-doping system is structured to deal with. There are some genetic therapies which are more about recovery and medicine, and perhaps they would be allowable, so we are not going to significantly enhance performance, and we are not going to be risky. So I think it’s going to be very difficult to distinguish between what should be banned, what could be banned, how to test it, so yes, it’s a potential nightmare waiting to happen.

Dr Dimeo (left) and WADA founding member Dick Pound at a university event back in 2016. Credit: The Scotsman

Do you have any idea of how long it will be before that starts to happen?

A few years? I think it is changing very, very quickly. I mean, if we track back in history for a parallel, the first steroids came on the market in the late 1950s, early 1960s. Within about ten years, there would be numerous, potentially hundreds of types of steroids. By the late 80s, you were into the potentially thousands with all different variants, human growth hormones, EPO, so that time period between the early 60s and the late 80s was one of massive pharmalogical development and innovation in order to basically to engage athletes to get them to buy products, which would improve their chance of success. So we may be about to see a similar sort of revolution, but with genetics instead of injectable drugs.

Do you think policy change can stem from your book fast enough to help tackle this issue before 2020?

No, the World Anti-Doping Agency has it’s code, which is a very lengthy, detailed document. They are a stakeholder based organization, so they need to get agreement for any change from the majority of members. They have a consultation every five or six years, so the next change will be 2021. The World Anti-Doping Agency is created in order to establish and implement a policy which is specifically about clean sport, and anything which reduces that mission is unlikely to be accepted. So to be honest, I can’t see the practical or applied outcome in the near future related to this book.

The purpose is to raise the debate, to raise issues, to try and educate people that are involved and I think to be perfectly honest, the largest market for this book is probably students because it’s within an academic environment that ideas can be opened up and discussed and unpackaged, deconstructed and analysed and compared to other things. That would never really happen within a WADA framework, because WADA is not interested, really, in what happens in deregulation of cannabis in other countries. They are only interested in ensuring that athletes follow the rules that are developed for sport. So the book probably speaks to audiences where there is a scope for that sort of debate, so that’s why I think students, other researchers, reporters, may find some things of interest and value more so than policy makers.

Featured Image Credit: The Scotsman

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