Beyond chemical cocktails – the new age of sports doping

Robert Conway, director at law firm Vardags, explains why catching dopers is harder than ever 

Although doping may seem like an individual offence, it is often part of a wider network of crime. This can make assessing who to accuse very difficult, and investigations can drag on indeterminably. In 2013, Lance Armstrong was found guilty of doping, but he did not act alone. The United States Anti-Doping Agency said that he was part of “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen”. Since doping can stretch across multiple jurisdictions, the international reach of sports regulators may prove more effective than UK criminal investigations.

The spotlight may be on Russia but the UK is not beyond suspicion. Michele Verroken, a British expert in sports doping, warns that Team GB’s success in Rio will put exceptional pressure on British athletes: “Olympic athletes are now doing everything they can to stay up there…we are hugely in danger of not giving people confidence that sport is clean and is fair”.

Far from retiring on a high, Bradley Wiggins ended his cycling career under suspicion of doping after a ‘mystery package’ was delivered to him by personal courier on the final day of Criterium du Dauphine 2011, which he went on to win. Team Sky announced “we are confident that there has been no wrongdoing” but many important questions remain unanswered, not least the contents of the ‘medication’. Perhaps the UK will soon follow its neighbours in criminalising PEDs to avoid this risk. But doing so under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 could result in the public, using the substances for non-doping purposes, being found suspect.

In professional cycling, competitors are starting to propel their bikes forward mechanically by using secret motors

Another reason why the UK is hesitant to criminalise doping is owing to the difficulty of keeping up with all the new possibilities on the market. Beyond chemical cocktails, athletes can now access transformative technology such as laser eye surgery. The Speedo LZR swimsuit is one item which brought technical doping into the spotlight. It was a swimsuit designed to imitate shark skin which improved hydrodynamics and buoyancy, and allowed better oxygen flow to muscles.

At the 2008 Beijing Olympics Michael Phelps and many other swimmers wore the LZR suit, some even multiple to maximise buoyancy. Worn by 23 of the 25 swimmers who broke world records, the swimsuit was clearly performance-enhancing. By January 2010, the Fédération Internationale de Natation had it banned and introduced more stringent swimwear rules.

Technical doping has also been a recent pest in professional cycling. Competitors are starting to propel their bikes forward mechanically by using secret motors. The first confirmed use of this infringement was by the Belgian Femke van den Driessche in 2016 at the Cyclocross, punished by the Union Cycliste Internationale with a six-year ban. Now it is standard to carry out bike inspections before major competitions, and the Tour de France uses thermal cameras to check for hidden motors.

With no way to distinguish between athletes who were misled and those who deliberately cheat, bringing in UK legislation may be a risky path to follow. Strategy that may initially seem intelligent may prove illegal once the anti-doping authorities discover it. Guilty or not, after the shock of the Russian state doping, athletes are now under more scrutiny than ever.

As the globe gradually squares up to the dangers to fair sport, the UK’s silence on the issue is becoming more pronounced. We must consider what message it delivers when a nation who came second in the last Olympics medal table shrinks from criminalising doping.

Robert Conway is a director of criminal defence at Vardags: vardags.com