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Doping, Surveillance and Radical Transparency in Sport

January 19, 2011

Surveillance studies people tend not to look at sport very much. Sure, sports mega-events and the kinds of security crackdowns and surveillance surges that occur around them are an object of research, but sport itself, less so.

This is interesting because the bodies of athletes are amongst the most closely monitored and at the same time, contested sites that one could imagine, none more so than professional cycling. Professional cycling may be the most difficult sport on the planet and not surprisingly it has acquired a bad reputation for the prevalence of cheating, particularly in the area of doping. The reputation is in some ways unfair as cycling also has some of the most onerous regulations governing everything from the movements of the riders – the so-called ‘whereabouts rule’, where riders must be available for testing at all times, so must tell doping testers where they are going to be and be there – to bodily function, with top level cyclists now required to have a ‘biological passport’ which establishes baseline values for levels of various aspects of blood and so on, so that anything which alters these values in an unusual way can be taken as prima facie evidence of doping.

However, there has been a reaction from many cyclists against the increasingly intrusive surveillance regime. Privacy has been cited (see for example the challenge by Kazahk rider, Andrey Kashechkin to be his positive test for an illegal blood transfusion), as well as the riders’ right to a good night’s sleep (testers now often arrive in the early hours of the morning). Critics have been less sympathetic with accusations of a code of ‘omerta’ towards anyone who tells the truth about doping in cycling, and riders generally failing to understand the seriousness of cheating.

In opposition to the complaints, a growing number of top teams and riders have been taking the initiative and arguing not against the surveillance regime but embracing it even more fully than the UCI, the sport’s governing body or WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency. One example is British rider, Bradley Wiggins. He’s an ex-Olympic track cycling champion who has previously finished 4th in the Tour de France, generally acknowledged as the pinnacle of the sport. That result was a surprise to everyone as Wiggins had never really shown such prowess on the road, and there were mutterings about doping. What Wiggins did was radical and even more startling: a rider who has always insisted that he has ridden clean, he published his biological passport readings for the whole period of the Tour and more.

Now he is taking this ‘radical transparency’ stance further and arguing that all biological passport data for all riders should be made available on the Internet. He argues that this would give both individual riders and the sport, credibility, and stop the rumour mill and the often unfounded allegations around particular performances, as well as shaming those who really are trying to get away with doping. Of course it does damage privacy, but in this case, the virtues of privacy and very much less clear than they might be in other domains. Of course there is also a big difference between such transparency being a voluntary gesture and a requirement.

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