Sport as a supposedly ethical-normative force. And doping as a criminological problem. A reflection on the upcoming Winter Games in Beijing (Part 1)
With the memorable Tokyo 2020/21 Olympic Games just over, the next Games in Beijing are just around the corner. While there was still a lot of talk in Tokyo about the pandemic, the postponement and the health of the athletes, human rights are on the agenda in Beijing, at least temporarily.
It will be boycotted diplomatically, whatever that may bring. The sports circus moves on from one country to another, the topics change, but some remain, or mainly then receive increased attention – such as doping.
Doping was also talked about during the Tokyo Games, especially given some records and personal bests that at least raise legitimate questions given some of the scandals over the last 10-20 years.
The fact that the topic of doping is still a difficult part of sport and that no athlete, and certainly not the many officials (and also some journalists as well as the public) want to let it spoil their mood, does not show only the wavy reporting on the topic – i.e. whenever something arises, although there are a few journalistic exceptions here – but also the handling and attitude of many officials in sport, even away from the big stages.
To understand this, a little anecdotal recourse. At a conference of a German sports association in autumn 2019, I gave a lecture on the criticism of the anti-doping system. In the subsequent discussion, one of the participants, all trainers and supervisors, gave the lecture inappropriate for an anti-doping day and referred to one of my slides to support his criticism.1
On this I had reproduced a result of our investigation with an excerpt from the statistical material. The question there was whether the interviewees Falsify information in the Adams Anti-Doping Databaseto protect their privacy.
Overall, according to our information, at least around ten percent of those surveyed could imagine this. The critic pointed out that this group probably included those who were also suspected of doping.
For him, criticism of the doping control system, which can be read from the statement, was tantamount to the will to take illegal performance-enhancing drugs. Although the conclusion is absolutely unfounded and cannot be read from the empirical material, it points to a fundamental problem in dealing with doping in sport: Criticism of the controls is often seen as synonymous with acceptance of doping.
In my opinion, this is also due to the fact that sport itself is generally viewed as good and positive, as a value that would be violated in any case by breaking the rules of doping.
Sport includes certain, but usually not specified or defined values, the violation of which is fundamentally morally reprehensible, according to the internal sport discourse, which is also reflected in regulations or the Wada-Anti-Doping-Code can be found.
Criticism of the controls should be rejected because it would call into question these values and the positive aspects of sport. A critical, scientific study of doping as a phenomenon in sport, especially with the control mechanisms, is hardly possible under these conditions or is viewed as a violation of the values of sport as such – as the example cited shows.
This assumption is wrong and problematic. It is scientifically untenable and it is a dead end for sport if criticism is reacted to in the manner described or in a more subtle way.
Since the phenomenon of doping as a whole and viewed quite soberly is first and foremost about rules and their non-observance, it seems helpful to me to look at it from a criminological perspective, because this is where the breach of the rule as well as the rule and its origin stand in the center of interest and less the sport as a value in and of itself.
In the following, I would like to explain why a criminological study of the phenomenon of doping in sport is important and why it can provide sport itself with new insights. It is all about contradictions and proposing a different way of looking at doping that could give sport more opportunities to reflect on itself.
Doping as a normative phenomenon
Doping is a phenomenon of sport that, under certain conditions, can become one of its main problems, if not already in some areas. Scientifically, it is mainly dealt with in sports science and related disciplines – psychology, when it comes to the motives for doping, pedagogy, with a focus on the possibilities for prevention, and sometimes law, when it comes to doping controls.
The natural sciences take care of the detection methods and the modes of action of medicines and medicines in the bodies of the athletes. When these are referred to as drugs, the discussion is already in the sociological and socio-pedagogical field, because the term refers to social constructions of deviant behavior associated with the use of certain substances.
If you look for a commonality in many public debates, but also in scientific discourses and dealing with the topic, then it is their often normative character with regard to the classification of the object of investigation.
Doping is wrong, it says, a problem that destroys the integrity of the sport, is against its “spirit” without these attributes being further elaborated. On the other hand, the fight against doping, also known as anti-doping, is viewed positively.
Discussion is about different ways, about the right preventive measures, measuring methods for prevalence, less often, almost never, about whether these assumptions are correct and can or should actually have such a normative character.
The idea that doping is a fundamental criminological problem hardly comes up in the discussion. This has to do with the key players in the discourse and the localization of the phenomenon of doping in sport, which has its own (cross-sectional) academic discipline in the form of sport science, in which “deviant behavior” is only treated as a negative event that needs to be sanctioned.
So what could a criminological perspective on the problem itself contribute and how could it enrich the existing discussions?
If one considers doping as a special form of drug discourse, then a criminological study of the subject could be justified quite easily. However, as a problem in its own right, embedded in a more far-reaching sports discourse, a genuine criminological approach is also an option, because criminology means the science of law making (To make Laws or rules), law breaking (breaking laws) and the reactions to law breaking (Reactions to breaking the law), a definition that goes back to the criminologist Edwin Sutherland.
All these aspects are also virulent in the phenomenon of doping, because every discussion about doping deals with one of these aspects, if not all at the same time: law making: the established doping rules; law breaking: doping itself; as well as the reactions to law breaking: the doping controls and the possible sanctioning of misconduct.2
This perspective makes it possible to no longer just look at the causes and frequency of doping, to speculate about the correct or less promising preventive measures, or to advise on legally adequate measures.
Rather, it is now about the background of the rules, the conditions of their creation, their history and also the associated social constructions. The same applies to doping, which is described as deviant behavior, i.e. taking substances prohibited by rules and using the same methods.
The key questions here are what is doping? How is it defined by whom? And as experienced by the athletes themselves? And finally, with this perspective, anti-doping measures also come into focus and can be subjected to a critical analysis.
Are the penalties actually the right way to prevent doping, are they appropriate, is the control effort proportionate, or are athletes controlled with an effort that is at the expense of other rights and freedoms? What does such a perspective look like in scientific practice and what insights can it provide?
Using the three categories – rule-making, rule-breaking, and reaction to rule-breaking – which provide a concise but very handy definition of the subject matter of criminology, especially a critical one, I would like to elaborate on this with a few examples.
My hope is that this will add an extra dimension to discussions about doping. To anticipate this here, this is not intended to be a plea for the approval of doping, nor do I want to make a blanket criticism of previous research on the subject.
Rather, I consider this perspective to be urgently needed in order to create approaches for a considered handling of the topic within organized sport, in the media accompanying it and in the politics responsible for sport. So far, this is almost completely missing.
There is the paradox that, on the one hand, critical journalists like Hajo Seppelt or Ralf Meutgens incur the displeasure of their colleagues, of sports journalism in general, of the associations and of politics, when they say what seems urgently necessary.
In addition, criticism of the anti-doping system is often equated with an endorsement of dopingy itself (here understood in the traditional sense). Both are absurd, but the usual defense against any criticism of the normative views of doping and its control.
Law making – making rules
A much-used argument in the doping debate is that of the rules. And it can hardly be disputed that sport needs rules in order to be recognized as what can be called fair competition. A doping ban is therefore nothing more than a set of rules that should apply to all athletes across disciplines and sport-specific rules.
I agree. I cannot agree that this line of argument is intended to counter the criticism of the arbitrariness of the rules, their constructed character and the contradictions they contain.
The fact that there are rules against the use of (supposedly or actually) performance-enhancing drugs is neither self-explainable nor self-evident. Discussions about the legalization of doping (which by definition would no longer be doping) are dismissed with the argument that the rules cannot simply be abolished, as if these natural laws were similar and had not undergone a historical development, influenced by the zeitgeist, social currents and medical knowledge that has gradually emerged.3
Once there, it seems, any debate about the usefulness of these rules is out of the question. The values of sport are also mentioned – they too seem to have no development in use and have always been there. They are not further defined.
It is completely unclear whether and to what extent the integrity of sport, honesty, fair play and respect4 applied equally at all times and everywhere.
There are indications that this was not the case and that organized sport as we know it today first had to develop into what it is today in order for such claims to be made of it5.
The veiling of his own, probably rather less noble roots and stages of development are part of his own history and his current self-image.