We're winning the fight against doping in sports

Despite sensational scandals, antidoping efforts – and a shift in values – are restoring integrity.

From Olympic gold medalists to Tour de France champions, a depressing number of star athletes have been caught up in doping scandals in recent years.

Given all the sensational headlines about confessions, investigations, and indictments, sports fans may think the doping problem is getting worse.

Some even think the fight against it is hopeless – or that we shouldn't bother. But it is important to keep fighting doping in sports. And the good news is that we're making remarkable progress in the effort to keep competition clean.

Related: Tour de France 2010 delivers drama – without the doping

The use of performance-enhancing substances or methods is prohibited because it is unfair, potentially dangerous to health, and violates the spirit of sport. The issue matters to society because whatever our values are, we should live by them in every facet of our lives.

If we genuinely and deeply value respect – for rules, laws, others, and ourselves – we must respect the rules when we play sports. We must have enough respect for others to protect fairness in every form of commerce with them. We must respect ourselves enough not to cheat and not to tinker with healthy bodies and minds in misguided, artificial ways, because it would be cheating ourselves out of our own true life.

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Some say, "Why not allow drugs in sports?" I respond by asking them, "At what age would you start doping your own children? At 10? At 2? Before birth?" I also tell them how allowing drugs in sports, in a sense, has already been tried. In the 1960s, before doping was prohibited, one too many doped athlete literally dropped dead in the public eye. It's because something had to be done that antidoping efforts first started.

Remarkable progress

Looking that far back reveals enormous, if slow, progress. In the 1980s, when I started working as an antidoping scientist, rules and sanctions varied across sports and countries. Almost no research funding was available to close loopholes, such as the lack of test for blood-booster medicines or growth hormone. All of that has changed now.

The list of antidoping rules violations has grown to include unacceptable conduct such as athletes refusing to be tested or trainers trying to dope athletes. Sanctions are possible for coaches or doctors involved in doping and for teams when one member is caught.

Enforcing strict liability put an end to excuses for positive tests, but didn't magically create objective criteria for distinguishing cheating from honest, inadvertent mishaps. Athletes who have a legitimate medical need to use a prohibited substance can request permission in the form of a therapeutic use exemption. Despite that, no matter where the line is drawn, it will probably always grieve some innocents and let some offenders get away.

Worldwide sports authorities and law enforcement agencies have been teaming up. They have tightened the net around drug users, and undone doping rings. These changes, which seemed unimaginable decades ago, are helping restore integrity to athletics.

This gives me bright hope that a world of sport in which doping has fallen out of fashion is possible.

Meanwhile, headlines and dismal revelations about doping shouldn't discourage us. After all, that means cheaters are being caught. It remains much easier to cheat than to catch cheaters, because testers respect rules and cheaters don't.

Some critics say that antidoping efforts up to now, which have mostly been to enforce rules, have not worked well enough. They say it's time to try something different. The good news is, we are.

Since the best way to detect progress is to look decades into the past, the best way to look ahead is to look far into the future – for generational change.

This is being catalyzed by programs such as the World Antidoping Agency's Play True Generation Program, which promotes value-based decision-making, the US Antidoping Agency and Discovery Education collaboration to fund creative school programs, and the Youth Olympic Games for athletes ages 14-18.

The inaugural Youth Olympics gathered some 3,600 athletes from more than 200 countries in Singapore in August 2010. The games had cultural and educational dimensions, allowing young athletes the time and opportunity to share something beyond sport. This is what sport can do to help make the world a better place: Make it clear that winning in life is more important than winning a gold medal.

The International Olympic Committee's track record since the 1960s shows that organizations can go from years of being criticized for not doing enough against doping to leading the way into the future by reaffirming fundamental values and redefining goals. Why couldn't any and all other sports organizations do that, too?

If we can list the forces for and against doping, then we can tip the balance to minimize doping – if that's what we want.

Deemphasize fame and fortune

We should deemphasize fame and fortune as goals and values. Parents should make sure they encourage kids to perform well in sports to teach them about mental discipline and self-improvement, not to fulfill a selfish quest for fame and pride.

Parents should also realize how influential they are as role models. They must watch out for the messages they send to their children, and the values they embody, through their own choices, including as consumers.

We should stop expecting records to keep falling and stop expecting athletes to be superhuman. We can eliminate the perceived need to be on drugs to remain competitive by resetting our expectations of athletic performance. And we should prepare athletes to be contributing members of society when their sports careers end, while rewarding athletes who are role models of health and fitness.

Related opinion: Drugs in sports: No outrage?

Such changes may seem unimaginable today. But they are within our grasp.

The temptation to use drugs in sports reflects the larger temptation to cut corners in life. Perhaps the most powerful antidote ultimately arises from a single value: respect. We can cultivate respect for ourselves by living a simpler life, aligned with our most important priorities. Doing that leads to an inner peace that may be the truest form of happiness, and makes us all winners.

Caroline K. Hatton is a sports antidoping scientist and the author of "The Night Olympic Team – Fighting to Keep Drugs Out of the Games."

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