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The Straight Dope on Regulating Fair Play in Sport

Maria Sharapova, pictured here at the 2015 Madrid Open, admitted to testing positive for the banned
substance meldonium in March 2016. Photo courtesy Tatiana/Wikimedia Commons
The Straight Dope on Regulating Fair Play in Sport
Kathryn Henne (Australian National U)
Why do so many athletes seem to be cheating? Kathryn Henne delves into the rules surrounding
doping and gender in sport.
Anxieties around cheating in sport seem to be everywhere.
Even the golden girl of professional tennis, Maria Sharapova,
has joined the growing list of elite athletes whose reputations
have been tarnished by performance-enhancing drug use. In
March, Sharapova admitted to testing positive for meldonium, a
substance she has been taking since 2006 and that has only
been banned since January. She attributed her failed test to a
mistake, accepting responsibility for her error, but denied any
intention of cheating. Despite this assertion, Sharapova is
subject to a two-year ban from sport, which she plans to appeal.
Although some fans, commentators, and competitors, including
Serena Williams, have supported Sharapova, not everyone has
been sympathetic. The former President of the World Anti-
Doping Agency (WADA), Dick Pound, described the situation as
“reckless beyond description,” acknowledging that the “US$30
million business” built on Sharapova’s brand depends on her
“staying eligible to play tennis.” No doubt Pound is also
sceptical after leading an independent commission into Russian
athletics: last year, it yielded findings of systematic doping and
cover-ups as well as state complicity. The International
Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the governing body
for world athletics, has since endured a full-blown scandal
following additional revelations of widespread doping and
corruption within the organization.
In sum, everyone in sport seems to be cheating—or are at least suspected of doing so. But, how did we get to this point? Reflecting on my years of ethnographic
fieldwork on regulations in global sport, I would argue that the answer is linked to the rules themselves.
A Brief History of Regulating Unfair Advantages in Sport
Attempts to regulate unfair advantages in sport often focus on performance-enhancing drug use. However, history paints a more complicated picture of regulation.
During the twentieth century, the professionalization of sport incentivized the use of training enhancements, prompting calls for formal regulation. The International
Olympic Committee (IOC) established drug-testing protocols in 1968. In addition, the IOC introduced specific rules for competitors in women’s events. The rules
mandated scientific tests aimed at verifying which competitors were, in fact, female. Their introduction meant that women athletes would no longer be subjected to
visual examinations of their genitalia—referred to colloquially as naked parades. However, in doing so, they also codified concerns expressed by sport officials, most
notably IOC President Avery Brundage, that “hermaphrodites” and athletes with “sex ambiguities” were unfairly competing in women’s events.
Anti-doping and gender verification regulations became more sophisticated
throughout the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries and also spread
to non-Olympic sports. As a result, many high-profile athletes became
implicated in doping and gender-related controversies. Some seemed to be
clear instances of inadvertent doping, such as asthmatic American swimmer
Rich DeMont, whereas others emerged as deviant, including track athletes
Ben Johnson and Marion Jones. A select few, such as sprinting legend
Florence “Flo Jo” Griffith-Joyner, remain suspect post-mortem, even though
Lance Armstrong at stage 17 of the 2009 Tour de France. Photo courtesy
McSMit/Wikimedia Commons
Caster Semenya and Alice Schmidt during the 2011 World Championships athletics in Daegu. Photo courtesy Erik
van Leeuwen/Wikimedia Commons
they never tested positive for banned substances. And, then there are the
insidious cheats who pretended to be heroes like Tour de France winning
cyclist and cancer survivor, Lance Armstrong.
Advances in anti-doping science enabled the detection of thousands of
substances. The requirements also expanded to include in- and out-of-
competition testing and new forms of surveillance. Random drug testing,
monitoring high-level athletes’ whereabouts on an everyday basis, and blood
profiling became common practice. Anti-doping initiatives actively encouraged
innovation to detect new substances and to monitor athletes, including
partnerships with large pharmaceutical companies.
The definition of doping also changed, as did the acceptable explanations for
an inadvertent positive test. Doping, as a category, captures a number of
behaviors. By definition, something can be doping if it meets two of the three
following criteria: (1) the athlete believes the substance is performance
enhancing; (2) it can harm one’s health; and (3) it undermines the spirit of
sport. The Strict Liability Standard also prevents athletes from successfully
appealing on the grounds that they did not intend to ingest banned
substances. WADA’s burden of proof is a “comfortable satisfaction with
circumstantial and technical evidence,” which does not require as much as the
“beyond a reasonable doubt” standard used in criminal cases. Taken together,
these considerations mean doping entails a range of offenses, and it is difficult
to appeal a violation if an athlete tests positive for a banned substance or fails
to comply with monitoring requirements.
While anti-doping regulation resulted in the suspension of athletes who used
artificial substances (whether intentionally or not), gender verification did not
ensure that only “natural” women competed in sport. Although more dignified
than naked parades, tests still imprecisely determined sex. In practice, the
tests often failed to detect the women presumed to have unfair advantages,
prompting calls to revisit or improve tests. A range of tests emerged—
cytological analysis of buccal smears, Barr body analysis, polymerase chain
reaction testing—all introduced with the aim of more accurately identifying the
marker of biological femaleness, only to fail because sex is not based on a simple binary distinction.
In 2012, following the controversy and
suspension of South African 800-meter World
Champion Caster Semenya in 2009, the
Hyperandrogenism Regulations came into
effect. Rather than attempt to detect which
competitors were biologically female or not as
previous tests had, the Regulations limited the
level of naturally occurring androgenic hormones
that elite women athletes could have under the
assumption that women with high levels of
testosterone have an unfair advantage over
female athletes with lower levels. In addition to
that assumption being contested, testing was
selective, only affecting those suspected of
having high levels of testosterone. Thus, science
alone did not determine who potentially had an
advantage; rather, subjective assessments
influenced who was deemed suspicious.
My research, as well as historical analyses by
others, such as Lindsay Parks Pieper, reveals
that bodies that do not appear to fit first-world
feminine ideals often emerge as suspect. In the
past, women from Eastern Bloc countries
occupied this space. Women of color from non-
Western countries were the more recent targets
of regulation. These same women often emerge
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as doping suspects: as I have discussed elsewhere in more depth, regulations have supported beliefs that female masculinity is an aesthetic marker of bodies unfairly
enhanced, either by steroids or biology.
How Anti-Doping and Gender Verification Regulations Work Today
Anti-doping regulation is now an established global regime spearheaded by the WADA, governed by the World Anti-Doping Code, and backed by the UNESCO
International Convention Against Doping in Sport, which legally mandates governmental signatories to pass legislation that supports this sport-specific war on drugs.
Athletes and support staff are therefore not only compelled by international and national laws in many jurisdictions, but also contractually bound to comply with
regulation. Otherwise, they cannot participate in most sanctioned sporting events. WADA relies upon both legal and nongovernmental partnerships to bind athletes to
regulation, and has pushed for greater partnerships with law enforcement entities (Henne 2010). Anti-doping regulation now not only relies on the surveillance of
athletes, but it also increasingly employs legalistic investigative powers. Further, WADA rules also circumscribe gender at the hormonal level, stating that athletes are
suspected to have doped if their ratios between testosterone and epitestosterone falls outside a designated range (currently 4:1, lowered from 6:1 in 2010).
While anti-doping regulation has expanded, gender verification regulation has faced clear challenges. Prior to 2015, athletes whose hormone levels were above the
threshold mandated by the Hyperandrogenism Regulations (10 nanomoles per litre), had to demonstrate that they were androgen-resistant—which means that they
cannot recruit the benefits of high levels of testosterone—or undertake corrective treatment to lower their levels. In other words, women could be required to take
hormone-suppressing drugs to limit testosterone production or undergo genital surgery. A 2013 study found that in order to comply with the Regulations, at least four
women, ages 18–21 and all reportedly from lower-income countries, underwent medically unnecessary surgeries to continue competing. Some procedures, according
the study’s authors, did not reduce testosterone levels; they included estrogen replacement therapy, clitoris reductions, and feminizing plastic surgery.
In 2015, the Court of Arbitration in Sport (CAS) panel suspended the Hyperandrogenism Regulations following a successful appeal by Dutee Chand, an Indian sprinter
who refused to undergo corrective measures. CAS gave the IAAF two years to provide new evidence outlining the degree to which hyperandrogenic women enjoy a
competitive advantage. It also specified that if the IAAF fails to do so, the Regulations will be rendered void.
Lingering Questions about Regulation
Although gender verification and anti-doping regulations rely heavily upon scientific testing, their shared history highlights a pattern in which subjective evaluations are
important. Presumptions about good and bad athletic performances often rely on what is deemed to be unnatural in the eyes of overseeing authorities, reflecting the
cultural conditions that color their perceptions of the world. Although seemingly innocent athletes like Sharapova are now among the ranks of those found to have
violated anti-doping rules, some groups of athletes remain more suspect than others, as revealed by the heightened scrutiny of Chinese, Kenyan, and Russian
Despite the current suspension of the Hyperandrogenism Regulations,theCAS panel accepts two points that theIAAFclaims are foundational for the regulations.
First, “that there is a scientific basis in the use of testosterone as a marker” for the purposes of regulation, and second, that endogenous testosterone is “the best
indicator of performance differences between male and female athletes.” Such statements suggest that authorities have not yet abandoned deeply held gendered
beliefs about what kind of women should be eligible to participate in elite sport. Moreover, they do not challenge the culture of suspicion cultivated by both anti-doping
and gender verification regulations. Rather, such statements, combined with stories emphasizing that cheating in the form of doping is systemic, reiterate a narrow
focus on holding individual athletes accountable without considering the broader social and regulatory dynamics around them.
Kathryn (Kate) Henne is a senior research fellow at the School of Regulation and Global Governance at the Australian National University. She is the author of
Testing for Athlete Citizenship: Regulating Doping and Sex in Sport (2015) and associate editor of PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review.
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