Why an ‘ethics of fairness’ is a better way of looking at doping

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As another decade in cycling begins with WorldTour doping investigations (Operation Aderlass) and news of Bjarne Riis returning to the WorldTour, occasional CyclingTips contributor Craig Fry offers a different way of thinking about doping. In the article below, Fry proposes an “ethics of fairness” that can help us understand how the real victims of doping are impacted, and pave the way for greater protections of their rights and interests.


Every cycling fan knows the chequered history of this sport by now. The long lineage of famous doping and other cheating cases has been well covered over the years by cycling journalists, writers, and academics alike.

But while things seem to have settled down since the Armstrong, Operation Puerto, and Festina days, it is obvious that a significant ethics and integrity problem still exists for the sport of cycling.

I’m not talking about the number of cyclists found guilty of doping or other non-analytical rules violations. Even though such cases are never far away from the news, the statistics alone are not the full story.

The clearest evidence of the cycling integrity problem is the fact that, despite testing positive or confessing to performance-enhancing substance use, professional riders past and present continue to:

– Retain their race titles, medals, and prize money

– Hold positions of influence in professional teams, in cycling media, or cycling administration roles

– Benefit from cycling-related business ventures, book contracts, and other promotional opportunities.

The names are well known, so I needn’t list them here. I have also written before on these pages about examples of weak culture that perpetuate these types of integrity issues in cycling, so I won’t repeat that argument here either.

Instead, I’d like to present a different idea. I want to argue for an ethics of fairness as an alternative way to think about cycling integrity breaches, and a constructive means of addressing the limitations of current punitive anti-doping frameworks.

The limits of punitive anti-doping frameworks

Sports anti-doping policies and practices are guided by relevant national legislation and an international framework that includes the WADA code, international technical standards for testing, model anti-doping rules, and the UNESCO International Convention Against Doping in Sport.

A key feature of the current anti-doping system is its focus on the individual at the center of alleged rules violation cases and the relevant evidentiary and mitigating factors for deciding culpability and penalties.

Such legal and regulatory considerations in individual rules violation cases are an important component of sports anti-doping processes and outcomes. But the punitive emphasis of this anti-doping framework also has its problems.

One has to do with the complex (and sometimes impossible) task in doping and other non-analytical rules violation cases of judging matters like individual motives, the nature of the breach, the role of others, and the extent of individual responsibility.

“He had no choice”, “Everyone else was doing it too”, “It was expected at the time”, “She didn’t know what was being injected”, “It was accidental contamination”, “He needed to keep his contract to feed his family”, “The medical records were lost”, etc.

Sound familiar?

Even with the principle of strict liability at the heart of the anti-doping system, the formal process inevitably attempts to clarify and reconcile the accused athlete’s circumstances and intention in judging what sanctions are appropriate.

The point here is, as we have seen in many high-profile cases, because of the difficulty of achieving certainty on such matters the judgments made on individual cases can appear inconsistent. And the result of this lack of clarity and consistency is a growing public mistrust in the anti-doping system, and a kind of irresolvable relativism in the public debate that occurs around doping cases.

Another problem with the punitive emphasis in individual doping cases is this makes it difficult to define a sports ethics and integrity agenda that looks beyond legal and regulatory matters. As a result, the wider cultural and social determinants of integrity breaches in sport (examples of weak culture in cycling like: ignoring the whole truth of the past, not speaking about doping, past riders who have breached anti-doping rules in positions of influence, the normalisation of cheating by media and sponsors) remain unchallenged and unchanged.

A broader view of cycling integrity is needed. One way to achieve this is through an ethics of fairness, which can help cycling shift its focus to consider how individual doping and other rules violations impact, others and the sport as a whole.

A fairness ethic for cycling

In general terms, fairness has to do with the aspirational goal of equal treatment of individuals and groups. In the sporting context, while fairness is often thought of as ‘fair play’ the concept can also extend beyond competition to include ‘fair access’ to resources, equipment, support staff, and technology etc.

In cycling, I’d suggest the idea of fairness goes to the heart of why many people regard as unacceptable the competitive advantages gained through prohibited performance-enhancing substances, blood transfusions, bike motors etc. In essence, the act of choosing to use such methods is seen as a breach of the fairness principle because such advantages are not universally accessed.

Of course, fairness is not the only value relevant in sport ethics. Other values in the mix include honesty, professionalism, responsibility, and respect, to name just some. All of these have a place in sport and life, and they resonate with a great many people.

But I argue the value of fairness, in particular, is the best starting point for considering cycling ethics and integrity issues because of where it focuses our attention.

If our first question in doping or other rules violation cases is about fairness (rather than the usual focus on who doped, how, when, why, and what their will punishment be) it can help us think about how individual doping decisions and behaviours impact other parties – those people who chose not to break the rules, and who missed race wins, podiums, medals, prize money, and career opportunities because of it.

In turn, because a core function of any sports ethics and integrity effort should be that of addressing inequities or deficits constructively, clarifying the wider impact of doping can also pave the way towards considering how to develop or facilitate better protections for ‘clean’ rider rights and interests, and possible mechanisms for restitution of lost prize money, titles, and other opportunities.

A fairness ethic in cycling could therefore help to facilitate a type of restorative justice approach that aims for positive outcomes such as accountability, responsibility, and forgiveness – rather than the current narrow and negative focus on punitive results, the effectiveness of which for doping prevention is currently in dispute.

Simple steps are possible now

It is possible for the sport of cycling to shift the way it thinks about doping and other integrity issues. Such a change could begin now, and would not require new funding, new administrative structures, specialist working groups, or expensive reviews.

There are three simple steps available now for key cycling stakeholders interested in change:

1. Rider representative bodies, international and national cycling organisations, and other relevant stakeholder groups (e.g. cycling media, sponsors) could combine to support past and current elite professionals to share their experiences and make their voices heard about the personal, economic, performance, social, and post cycling career impact from the doping and other anti-doping rules violations of others.

2. International and national cycling organisations, clubs, and teams could make an official public commitment to understanding and acknowledging the impact of doping on clean cyclists, and consider how to facilitate restorative justice options including: voluntary or mediated personal apologies; financial and/or in-kind acts of giving back to fellow riders and the sport; and clearer public statements / positions on anti-doping rules violation incidents under their remit.

3. Cycling media could reflect upon decisions about editorial focus in relation to anti-doping rules violation issues, and the wider impact of providing uncritical coverage or promotional platforms for past and current elite riders who hold positions of influence in cycling after having breached anti-doping rules.

Our current international sports anti-doping framework of legislation, codes, standards, policies and practices provides a vital platform for addressing the regulatory, legal, and punitive elements of cycling integrity issues like doping. But if that’s our only focus, it unnecessarily limits us to a negative emphasis on the individual, the near impossible task of untangling the complexity of how and why individual rules violations continue, and a current anti-doping prevention approach that appears to be failing.

The cycling ethics and integrity challenge is more than just a legal and regulatory matter.

What cycling needs is a wider focus and way of thinking about doping and other non-analytical rules violation cases that prompts us to acknowledge the victims of such integrity breaches, helps us better understand the impacts on them and the sport generally, and highlights options to address such issues constructively.

An ethics of fairness is a positive and achievable integrity standard for cycling, and a potentially effective intervention in those aspects of weak culture that continue to create integrity problems in this sport.

Craig Fry is a Doctor of Public Health (Ethics), and freelance cycling writer based in Melbourne. He can be found on Twitter and Instagram.

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