Ethics in sport: Parisotto rejects free-for-all approach to doping

by Shane Stokes


Anti-doping scientist Robin Parisotto has given strong reasons to counter those who say that performance enhancing drugs should be legalised in sport, saying that there are numerous arguments why this should never be the case.

In the wake of several doping scandals, commentators such as Oxford bio-ethicist Julian Savulescu have argued that allowing doping is more fair than having the current system, whereby some cheats are caught and others can evade detection.

“Unless and until our ability to test for drugs is radically enhanced, we should allow what I call physiological doping,” Savulescu wrote on The Conversation website. “That is, setting safe limits for physiological values such as testosterone levels, and hematocrit – a measure of the number of red blood cells in a person’s blood. Testing then focuses not on how those levels were achieved, but on whether they are safe.”

He argues that if certain substances are determined to be unhealthy, testing should focus on eliminating these.

Savulescu and others have made similar arguments elsewhere in the past, including on CyclingTips. They have been regularly interviewed in the aftermath of big doping scandals, and have called for an abandonment of the current system.

However Parisotto, a highly-regarded anti-doping scientist who played a pivotal role in developing a test for EPO prior to the Sydney Olympics in 2000, strongly disagrees with the notion of a free-for-all.

Speaking to CyclingTips, he said that human nature means that cheating will never be truly stamped out. He has also expressed serious reservations with how sporting organisations are behaving, suggestions that they are beset by both corruption and also a lack of will to fully address the doping problem.

However he is clear that removing the rules against doping would be far worse than the current flawed system. “The alternative to idealism is to have open slather,” he said, referring to an Australian phrase denoting a free-for-all. “There no way in the world that if you had open slather that that would even the playing field. It would make it even more uneven than it already is.

“For example, say we, society or sport decided that it’s going to be open slather for blood doping. So what would one do? One would blood dope, win a few events, and whatever. Then the athletes would think: ‘if a little bit was pretty good, let’s have a little bit more.’ And you would get to the point where they would be basically killing themselves.”

Parisotto is aware of the inevitable counter-argument to this, namely the claims that if such a system was monitored, that athletes would not be in danger. But he believes that any attempt to standardise treatments would be a failure.

“You can’t have a situation where people are saying, ‘if it’s all controlled by medics and doctors and everyone gets the same dose, it will be okay.’ That’s not going to work either. Because, as you know, if I have a headache and I take one aspirin, it might help me. Some other people might take five aspirin before it even has an effect.

“So you cannot propose a system where everyone gets the same drug, same dose, and let’s just see how it all pans out. That’s a ridiculous scenario as well.”

Parisotto has been involved in anti-doping for decades. In addition to his work developing the EPO test, he was also a founder member of the UCI’s biological passport panel, and also did similar work with other bodies. He believes that athletes face a temptation to push things further, trying to find an edge.

He believes that same temptation exists for those who break the anti-doping regulations. If a small amount of a substance or currently banned method was allowed, he believes it would inevitably lead to the utilisation of more. If one blood bag is deemed to help performance, some will try two.

“That is the tenet of marginal gains, isn’t it?” he says. “You are just always at the margins. ‘Well, let’s just push it one more, one more, and hopefully we will come under the threshold of the test, or we won’t get tested at all.’ It is just such a slippery slope if you go that way.”

Parisotto highlights important ethical issues with how an open slather system would affect young sportspeople.

“If we are going to allow that scenario to manifest, then is there going to be an age limit? And who makes the call – what age?,” he asks. “And does gender play a role in that? Blah blah blah – come on!”

The Australian is all too aware of the flaws with the current system, resigning in protest after he spoke out against anti-doping inaction in 2016. He believes that things could, and should, be better than they are, and makes clear that the authorities could be doing more.

“For me, there has to be a system where you know we’re not going to allow drugs in sport. Let’s do our utmost to make it as clean as possible. And that’s where it’s all falling over right now. They are not putting in the effort that they could be.”

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