Is it time to criminalise doping in sport?

The Mixed Zone editor Sue Mott discovers the lie of the land ahead of the select committee hearing investigating drugs in sport from its chairman, MP Damian Collins. Whatever happens, cycling’s bigwigs have some important questions to answer

The sweet singe of grilling will be evident around the corridors of Portcullis House tomorrow when Sir Dave Brailsford and Shane Sutton are up before the Culture Media and Sport select committee to discuss drugs in sport, be they ethical or otherwise? The mystery of what was contained in a jiffy bag which found its way from these shores to France, may or may not be uncovered.

The fact is that no one who appears before this, or any other similar, committee is under oath to tell the truth. Neither are the recommendations that flow from it guaranteed to be enshrined in new laws. We can be indebted to the meticulous David Walsh of the Sunday Times for discovering that the last fine gathered by such a committee was probably paid in groats. That was in 1666.

However, anyone who witnessed Sir (is it still Sir?) Philip Green peering uncomfortably over his paunch during his own select committee appearance following the BHS debacle, will know that the heightened level of scrutiny is valuable in itself.

Damian Collins

The chairman of the CMS select committee, Damian Collins (MP for Folkestone and Hythe and, by the way, a Manchester United supporter) is keen that British Cycling should dispel the on-going apparent conundrum of TUEs and brown envelopes. The specific Theraputic Use Exemptions are the three taken by Sir Bradley Wiggins … oh God, there’s so much to explain. Feel free to skip the next paragraph if you know all this.

[For those catching up: It has been disclosed – by a Russian hack, in fact – that Sir Bradley Wiggins, British cycling hero, was administered a controversial drug three times in his career prior to major races, a drug that has powerful performance-enhancing qualities but is nevertheless allowed for the treatment of serious allergies. He has hayfever/asthma/rhinitis and a doctor prescribed him the drug – trade name Kenacort – apparently as a preventative strategy. This is legal. And the package sent across the Channel? … No one knows what was in it. Or perhaps they do and prefer not to say. It might be relevant.]

So …

“The industry term is ‘cheating within the rules’,” Damian Collins said last week during an interview exclusive to The Mixed Zone. “People are going to the absolute limit. In some areas, that’s right in performance training, but in the use of drugs … is it safe? Does the [World Anti-Doping Authority] Code, as it stands, encourage athletes to take risks they shouldn’t be taking? If it is legal, athletes will always do it. It may require a substantial change in the rules to look at substances – which drugs should be banned and which shouldn’t – to give greater clarity.

“I think also there’s a strong case to be made for criminalising certain breaches of the Code. It’s been done in France and in Australia. The way things stand at the moment it’s very much the athlete who carries the can. If other parties are involved – a courier, someone prescribing, someone administering – they’d all be party to a criminal act. It would really make them think and check. It would also create the obligation to disclose what information they have.

“I think there’s a very strong case for making doping in sport a criminal offence. I also think the whole debate around the jiffy bag is an interesting issue of governance. If people don’t know or remember [what was in it], how can that be the case? From the good governance point of view, records should be kept.”

This is forthright stuff from a politician, albeit one who knows his powers are limited to recommendations. He may or may not have upset Vladimir Putin already with his desire to see Russia stripped of the football World Cup in two years’ time following the disclosure of their state-run doping enterprise which affected, at the very least, the Sochi Winter Olympics and London 2012.

“Is Russia fit to host the World Cup? Can we have confidence we’ll have a safe, clean tournament? And coming on the back of the European Championship and the behaviour of the Russian fans, how is Russian going to run this [World Cup]? I don’t think Fifa [football’s world governing body] have sought to engage on what is a really serious issue.

“I find it extraordinary that [Russian deputy PM and former Sports Minister] Vitaly Mutko can be called out by the Wada independent commission – his department was party to and organiser of the doping scandal, and it would have been impossible for Mutko not to know about it – and yet Mutko sits on the Fifa Council.

“This is supposed to be the new Fifa. They can’t just sit by and say nothing about it as though this is all happening in a parallel universe. If they want people to see that Fifa takes doping and ethics seriously – and believes it’s the role of leaders to promote clean sport – then they’d be speaking out about this. And they’ve done nothing at all.”

Whether this robustly belligerent attitude is entirely conducive to his safe passage around London is debatable. “I’ve not been approached by any men in trench coats,” he said cheerfully. “It’s important that people take a stand. It’s disappointing that the IOC [International Olympic Committee] didn’t impose a blanket ban on Russia in Rio when the Paralympic movement did. People have to understand that any major breach of the rules carries penalties. It’s not a political act. It is saying: ‘You can’t do this’.”

In another area of contention, Collins is all for increasing the number of women on the boards of sports governing bodies. “In my first job in the advertising industry I had a woman boss. I have one now. Certainly it’s my experience in the workplace that women contribute common sense and clarity.”
He may not run scared of Russians, but there are limits to foolhardiness.


Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press. Sue’s latest articles

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