Levelling the playing field

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I have been hearing a lot of people commenting that banning doping will lead to a level playing field in sport.

In this post I am having a bit of a think about how the sports world regulates on doping and what constitutes a level playing field.  This follows a very interesting debate with my final year forensic science students around the ethics of sport.


What does a level playing field look like?

A world of sport without any doping products. That seems to be what people mean. As in competition is purely based on ‘natural ability’ and training. Well is that level? Is competition base on your genetics fair? I am taller than average which gives me certain advantages in swimming for instance.  Removing doping certainly strips it back to that genetics factor, along with desire and learnt motor skills.

Would a level playing field actually be a world WITH doping?  Some of us will have naturally elevated haematocrit levels (which is key to carrying oxygen to the muscles during exercise), which is of obvious advantage.  Should we allow all athletes to obtain the same level? This would be achieved using blood doping or EPO under medical supervision, removing some of the dangers associated with doping such as poorly stored blood (or even mixed up blood bags), shared needles or unsterilised equipment.

The normal range of circulating testosterone in males is 10-35 nmol/L. Potentially one male athlete could have three times the circulating testosterone of another, allowing a greater response to exercise and better recovery afterwards.  How level is that?  Again, athletes could have their blood values adjusted to a set level and checked regularly, if they spiked too high treatment could be given and the athlete removed from sports participation until a return to their regulated level.

This method would set safe levels for various physiological parameters and then you could remove the exogenous drugs (produced outside the body) through prohibition. Examples such as amphetamine or synthetic steroids would be banned as these are not ‘natural’.

I recently published a short review of the Athlete Biological Passport (see here, Scottish Medical Journal), the article is positive and I do believe the passport has helped to limit doping to a large degree, but has it just allowed a small amount of doping to continue, such that you don’t alter your blood parameters too much?  That is the thought of several experts I have spoken with and perhaps this is the first step in saying ‘we know we can’t catch everyone, but we can limit the doping to manageable and hopefully healthy limits’.


What about technological ‘doping’?

This point was picked up by a few students in our debate.  Is there a line in improving ourselves physically apart from doping? OK so I am short-sighted and wear glasses or contact lenses.  Should these be allowed in a level playing field?  I would be useless (and dangerous) at archery for instance without them (not that I am any good with my site corrected I may add). If that is allowed then what about ‘Google Glass‘?  These can give you real time information on the road ahead, wind conditions, possibly even the physiological state of your opponent.  The sports world has drawn various lines in this area – a competition cycle must weight no less then 6.8 kg, cricket bats must be made from willow not aluminium, golf stipulates grooves on the club face must be symmetrical and of certain depth and area.  These rules may or not make sense (the bike weight was introduced before modern material could make safe bikes at much lower weight, such that an amateur rider with enough cash can easily get a bike lower than that limit) but they all set a ‘level playing field’ for that particular aspect.


A lot comes down to what you think of as the reason for sport and competition.  If you remove physiological differences and technological differences what do you have?  Is this a test a persons ability to repeat fine motor actions or test ‘natural aptitude’ and training?  A lot will depend on the sport involved.  That makes me think that one rule for all (as is essentially the aim with the World Anti Doping Agency rules) is not the best approach.


Maybe in a week or two  I will come back to this topic and talk about the other area that came up – allowing all drugs and having two streams of competition ‘doped Olympics’ and the current ‘clean; ones.


Thanks for reading – please feel free to comment and help continue our discussion!

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About Dr Tom Bassindale

Dr Tom Bassindale is a forensic scientist, and the founder of We Are Forensic. He is currently the subject lead for chemistry and forensic science at Sheffield Hallam University. He's managed hundreds of forensic toxicology cases, and is an experienced court witness. He has specialist expertise in forensic toxicology and drug testing in sport. And yes... he watches CSI.