Expert opinion: Dr Paul Dimeo, senior lecturer in sport at the University of Stirling, specialises in the research of drug use in sport and anti-doping policy


The recent athletics doping scandals are a stark reminder of the depth of the problem. The IAAF is under pressure to reform as the UCI was a few years ago.

The scale of the problem in certain countries, and lack of trust in the sport’s leadership, recalls cycling’s darkest days from the Nineties. How to respond to this glaring lack of progress?

>>> Cycling behind athletics, weightlifting and baseball in 2015 doping tally

Doping is not a phase; it’s an inevitable outcome of the passions and glories associated with success. To completely stop doping, we would have to cut prize money and curtail the social status afforded to champions. But as the increasing prevalence of doping in amateur endurance sports shows, the desire to win is as powerful a motivation as are financial rewards.

The forces of anti-doping are ineffective against this will to win whatever it takes. Strategies of increased testing, better science, tougher sanctions and social stigma have not prevented the emergence of new doping sub-cultures.

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What are the options for anti-doping? The official line is more of the same: keep fighting the unwinnable war, making slow and incremental progress by investing more resources. This hasn’t worked so far, and relatively minor infringements receive inappropriately lengthy bans.

Criminalisation proposals could see athletes jailed: an extreme and impractical solution. The top-level corruption and cover-ups in athletics confirms that weeding out doping through top-down policing is unrealistic.

The alternative is to re-evaluate our definition of ‘cheating’. The utopian myths ‘clean sport’ and ‘level playing field’ need to be reconsidered as athletes find new, smarter means of performance enhancement.

Certain athletes will always be advantaged by their genetics, access to technology and superior training. Responding constructively to doping requires a collaborative rethink:  involving athletes in policy-making to develop a more realistic approach. Making anti-doping ever more draconian is clearly not the solution.

  • Nomad

    You make an excellent point on the usage of exogenous EPO compared to the stimulation of serum EPO through normobaric hypoxia (i.e., altitude tent). There are many peer-viewed studies that tested normobaric hypoxia on endurance athletes resulting in significant increases in Hct, Hb, and subsequent improvement in aerobic capicity. What would be the difference physiologically? None…except one method is permitted and the other banned. Clearly an athlete that is a responder to a normobaric hypoxia regiment would have a performance advantage over other athletes not using this technology, as the studies bear out. But yet the athlete who uses EPO is banned and usually villified by the media.

  • Samuel G

    This tired, smelly old mouldy chestnut of an idea just keeps resurfacing. Dozens of commentators have suggested this before Dimeo, many of them supposedly experts in their field and yet anyone with an ounce of intelligence can quickly and easily expose it as stupid. You don’t stop fighting crime because its hard work and can never be 100% successful. You do your best and innovate constantly in hope of suppressing the crime to a very low, tolerable level, which is what WADA iand others are trying to do with doping in sport. No one seriously expects doping or cheating generally to cease to exist completely do they?

  • Bruce D

    It needs to be made a criminal offence just like illegal betting in sport. And this will need to include some very clear long term strategic planning such as addressing gene editing. I don’t want the future of sport to be just for freaks that dope or have had their genes altered to give them super human powers like the X-Men or other silly cartoon superheros: do you. By 2050 we will have the medical powers to be immortal, the power of sport as a reflection of what society should be like needs to be vehemently protected

  • sola scientia

    You can inject EPO — or you can sleep in a hypoxic tent every night.

    Same physiological effect.

    The latter is explicitly legal, and the former is not.

    What was that you said about morality?

    You can be born with a genetic mutation that makes more EPO:

    Or you can inject EPO to the same effect.

    Is it moral to deny people who lack the mutation(s) to up their EPO? No amount of training will improve the situation.

    Basically, in a world where athletics is reduced to nothing more than a beauty contest — only the genetic freaks will win — what is the purpose of athletics? AlanW says that he would refuse to compete in the face of doping — an ironic position, given he (like almost everyone else) has lost the race the day he was born. Indeed, how can he explain why marathons and other endurance events worldwide attract millions of entrants — to the vast majority of these people, even a sub-three hour finishing time is beyond impossible.

    None of them are “competitive”.

    Yet there they are at the starting line.

    Could it be that your and AlanW’s model of what is to be “athletic”, what exactly is happening during a “race”, and the nature of “competition” is flawed?

  • ummm…

    I think they are timid because of legal hurdles, and the boatloads of cash, but mostly legal hurdles. As fans we should decide that we dont want to pay as much to see them, we dont need to buy all the fancy merchandise, and we can express open contempt if we feel like it. Omerta stains everyone; if clean riders dont want to be treated like poo then they need to stand up and be counted. Froome will complain that he is pushed (many riders have over 100 years) but he is leading the pack full of dopers. I have no sympathy for him. At least Lance Armstrong new how to get angry. If I was Froome and clean I’d go around steppin on all the journalists and chattering classes that indicted me. Maybe that is a difference in temperament between him and I, but I sure as hell would fight harder. I dont see any innocents in pro sport, i only see sharks and those fish that swim on their back waiting for a free meal.

  • ummm…

    Oh certainly not, and I agree with you on all accounts. But, what are we to do? We are grappling with human issues, not PEDs. We cannot continue pretending that humans wont cheat for a myriad of reasons. So, either we are terribly authoritarian and punitive when it comes to dopers (which is not practical because the governing bodies are worried about lawyers) and give a lifetime ban for the slightest infraction – or we keep this stupid game up where resources and time is wasted pretending to police. I agree that allowing PEDs is a deplorable option and would most likely lead to the death of the sport, but in my opinion would that be so bad? We dont really deserve any better a sporting climate than we currently have. The fans, riders, trade companies, sponsors, organizers all deserve to rot in my opinion. All lying to themselves and the next guy. We say sport is this, its that, it is the ultimate expression of human perseverance and integrity – yet every sport is a doping contest. Who cares if they all go away? What good are they now to anybody besides those that benefit monetarily?

  • Tony Short

    Agreed Alan. Doping is morally wrong. End of. If we go down the route of legalising everything we find difficult to control or that has been going on for thousands of years then we descend into anarchy. The same argument could be made in support of murder or rape or theft. Yes I know choosing to take PEDs in pursuit of sporting excellence maybe isn’t in the same league as those examples, but ultimately it will result in many more deaths than we’re already seeing. I cite bodybuilding once again as an example of the horrors of going down that route. You’re also quite right to point out that if PEDs become legal then the pressure to succeed goes right down to kids, and parents and coaches will be juicing them up with God knows what from an early age. That’s a scary prospect.

  • AlanW

    I don’t think that its possible to associate PEDs, or other cheating, just with ‘elite’ level sport. There is evidence of PED use at junior level and amateur level and even in ‘non-competitive’ events such as cycling sportives. And at what age would we encourage PEDs to be taken by children and adolescents – who have enough problems with hormones as it is 😉 And I would have a serious worry about some parents pressing their children to succeed at any cost. Free use of PEDS would not just be at elite level, but in anyone aspiring to elite level. Not a happy prospect in my opinion.

  • AlanW

    I agree with much said here – our national bodies are too timid and the punishment is feeble. But I do care if these men dope, as you put it. The trouble is that many sports fans and our national bodies are too tolerant of sports cheats, be they the PED takers or the ‘divers’ in soccer.

  • ummm…

    But elite sports and PEDs go hand in hand. They have been for thousands of years. In the original olympics I believe they were even psuedo legal. If we say that PEDs mean you are not a winner, then I’d probably find it hard to pick out any elite athlete as a winner. I dont think that the IDEAL has every existed. As far as the reality show analogy, I dont see it. I’m not sure if performing fantastic physical feats at the border of human ability means that you are just a celebrity; you may be but not for its own sake.

  • ummm…

    my apologies, i assumed there was a bias in your indictment which you have corrected me on. In the end, do we really care if these men dope? Maybe there is no “defeating” drugs because the motivation for it comes for our own human fallibility. And, the indifference of the fan largely may be proof of such. So, maybe the best solution is the transparent solution. I’d be all for lifetime bans because, as you say, bans are uneven and hardly punitive.

  • Tony Short

    I pretty much agree with you except I’m not in denial about British drug cheats, I only mentioned Spain because a certain multiple grand tour winner effectively served less than his already laughable 2 year ban because his national body facillitated it. I also don’t believe there’s actually been a war on drugs yet. If we start dishing out life bans and throwing people in the slammer then maybe that might be a war – lkke you say, make it career suicide to dope. As it stands we have people like sprinter Justin Gatlin who can get caught doping twice, serve 2 bans and still come back and compete at the highest level and make a ton of money. People like him and all the dopers in cycling by rights should get booed out of every stadium and race they enter and the fact that they don’t kind of underlines what you say about the antipathy of fans.

  • AlanW

    There are many other ways to cheat – ‘mechanical doping’ amongst others. I’ve done both Huez and Ventoux many times – of course they are hard, the issue is having some kind of illegal assistance to make them relatively easier. I can still compete in my age group, and I have never taken any kind of PED – I’m denying nothing, I’ve doubtless been beaten in the past by cheats, but I personally would get no satisfaction at all by winning that way, and I despise those that do. The reason I allude to reality TV is that it would not be real sport, just a competition to find the most effective pharmacological regime, thus achieving celebrity status but not as a result of sporting expertise.

  • ummm…

    People die in sport all the time as a result of PEDs. Happens to cyclists frequently enough, especially back in the day. I mean we have TOm Simpson dying in the middle of a race. Don’t throw stones. Elite sports is about PEDs. Has been going back thousands of years. You need to stop pointing fingers at people in other countries. You have plenty of cheats in the UK. As for 2 year bans – I agree they are a joke. If we dont want PEDs, then we make it a lifetime ban and legal actions every time. But, the governing bodies counsel say that is not viable because of the liability they open themselves up to. It is up to us as fans to decide what we want. If we want clean sport then we just ridicule these athletes and sponsors and coaches and governing bodies like they should be until they get it right. Treat them like real crap. However, if we believe clean sport is not possible, then we just let them stuff their bodies with drugs until they die along with the sport. Why tie yourself in knots? Why root for people you don’t believe in? Why defend a sport that has NEVER been clean. Why pretend like athletes are anything but animals that are for our entertainment like bears at a zoo. They dont deserve our trust, nor our money. Athletes and celebrities make way too much for what they do anyway. I say f off to all of em, and to any “fan” that even cares. Just go up the hill fast.

  • ummm…

    PEDs have been present going back to the first olympics and beyond. Elite athletes are elite because there are usually no holds barred. What is sadder? Putting on the blinders and pretending to live in a world that we dont – or admitting defeat and either making PED usage career ending and legally punitive, or allowing PED usage. I’d rather either make it career and legal suicide or legal. Pretending that we can police this sort of thing, as it has gone on since the beginning of sport, is infantile.

  • ummm…

    make it legal and career suicide to dope. but, that wont happen – sport brings in money. governments and people like money. end of story.

  • ummm…

    What is another way to cheat besides PEDs? What do PEDs have to do with reality shows and an easy route to fame? Going up Alpe d’huex or ventoux is difficult no matter what you are on. What does it say about athletes that compete in this sporting climate, where we KNOW that doping is prevelant and most likely if you aren’t on it you are pack fill. Are current clean athletes able to compete because they can deny the reality of it to themselves, whereas if it was legal they could not?

  • Tony Short

    Who wrote this? What are these tougher sanctions he speaks of? All the evidence points to the fact that dopers are allowed to compete again after serving joke 2 year suspensions, and not even that if they’re Spanish Tour winners. I’ll tell you what sport looks like when you give in to doping, it looks like professional bodybuilding, a freak show where competitors regularly die under the age of 40. Is that what we want?

  • Laura Michard

    So just give up altogether on the idea of a fair competition just because you’re not satisfied with the current state of affairs. You’re not the first drugs in sport expert to suggest this. I guess if PEDs were allowed you’d have all the knowledge to help deliver them. Either way you’re a sad human being. Please don’t write anything.

  • markholds

    I think it’s ridiculous to suggest that the way to tackle doping is to redefine cheating.
    People will always cheat, anyway, whatever new definition you make. The aim is not to stop them cheating, but to catch as many cheats as possible.
    I think that by storing samples for several years, it is possible to catch ‘most’ of them, eventually. And I think that’s about the most you can hope for.

  • AlanW

    There will always be cheats in sport, always has been. If PEDs are legalised, those of a cheating mindset will find another way to cheat. Legalising PEDs would just turn sport into yet another reality TV show for those who want an easy to route to fame and fortune. I don’t watch reality TV, and I’d simply stop watching sports with uncontrolled PED usage – I’d still ride my bike, but I’d stop competing for sure. I reckon a large number of athletes would similarly be unwilling to continue if the only way to be competitive was to use PEDs, and a completely different kind of person would be attracted to sport. My personal opinion is that it would be a disaster.

  • Steve

    as carver in the wire says “this isn’t a war (drugs), wars end”

  • EB

    it will never be possible to legally allow drug taking without changing General Medical Council guidance or laws about prescribing.

    There is risk of harm from the drugs and rarely any health benefit. Even a doctor working privately for a sports team needs to follow the GMC guidance.