Drugs in Sport: How Widespread Is It?

Many tennis fans were shocked this week when Russian superstar Maria Sharapova admitted testing positive to the banned substance meldonium in January this year.

Meldonium is a prescription drug used to treat heart problems – but it is also classed as a performance enhancing drug because it can increase endurance, enhance recovery and assist with central nervous system functioning. It has been banned by the World Anti Doping Agency – meaning athletes are prohibited from using it.

Sharapova is the latest in a string of sports stars to test positive to banned substances.

Famous figures like Ben Johnson, Tyson Gay, Andre Agassi and Lance Armstrong have all had their reputations tarnished after being caught.

Drug use has been described as ‘rife’ in some sports – in the wake of AFL stars Lachie Keeffe and Josh Thomas testing positive to the banned drug clenbuterol, the CEO of Collingwood Football Club, Gary Pert, declared that taking banned substances is the norm rather than the exception for players.

Statistics suggest that the figures may not be that high – the World Anti-Doping Agency, which conducts hundreds of thousands of tests per year, identifies a banned substance in approximately 2% of tests. However, some argue the figure would be much higher if athletes were not so skilled at avoiding detection – it is said that users generally know which drugs are likely to show up in tests, and for how long.

Win at All Costs

According to insiders, even the threat of mandatory drug testing does little to deter athletes from using performance enhancing drugs. A magistrate who heads the Italian Olympic Committee’s anti-doping commission recently remarked that ‘all the [bike] riders are taking drugs.’ He says most manage to disguise drugs by timing when and how much they take, and that tests cannot keep up with all the newly banned substances.

Earlier this year, 34 players from the Essendon Football Club were found guilty by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) of using banned substances, and suspended from playing for two years. The CAS is a specialist international arbitration organisation which oversees breaches of the World Anti-Doping Code. While it has the power to suspend sportspeople, it cannot impose criminal sanctions.

The issue of drug use in the AFL is said to be so widespread that the Players Association recently introduced a policy aimed at encouraging users to seek help.

The new policy also contains sanctions designed at deterring drug use – players now face a $5000 fine if drugs are detected in their system, and will also be made to attend counselling and drug education programs. If they are caught again, they will be fined another $5000 and receive a four-game suspension. If they are detected a third time, they will be fined $5000, have their club notified and their name publicised.

This is additional to potential criminal sanctions – being found in possession of restricted substances without a valid prescription can result in a criminal conviction, or worse.

The approach taken by the Association (in emphasising rehabilitation rather than immediate ‘naming and shaming’) is arguably one which lawmakers could learn from when it comes to recreational drug use.

As discussed in many of our blogs, countries such as Ireland, Portugal and Mexico have decriminalised the possession of small quantities of drugs and emphasised rehabilitation rather than prosecution – with great results.

Yet Australian lawmakers are reluctant to embrace harm minimisation policies – instead focusing on punishing users for what many see as a health issue, rather than a criminal justice problem.

Ugur Nedim About Ugur Nedim
Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Specialist Criminal Lawyer and Principal at Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Sydney’s Leading Firm of Criminal & Drug Defence Lawyers.

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