With the high profile drug related bans this year from Viktor Troicki and Marin Cilic among others the whole concept of drug use, testing, and the issue of cheating in tennis is back in the spotlight.
I don’t know about you but the more I learn about the area of cheating, particularly in the context of drugs, the more I realise how complex the issue really is. In particular my eyes were opened while studying sport science where I learnt that all the banned drugs have very serious side effects. By serious I mean life threatening. There are also known performance-enhancing drugs that are not banned, like creatine, because they do not pose a risk to health in the quantities the drugs are used.
This changed my view from drugs being a performance-enhancement issue to a health and safety one because their ability to enhance performance was irrelevant. Only their ability to cause harm was relevant. Banning them puts them off limits to protect the health and safety of athletes taking part in sport, just like banning or limiting the use of alcohol while driving to make roads safer.
Obviously this is a huge statement but I wanted to expand on this in a later post. For now I just wanted to introduce drug regulation as a health and safety challenge where boundaries are set and penalties are imposed for crossing the boundaries, and making the sport unsafe or even dangerous for those involved. The aim is to encourage safe competition. The level playing field being that only safe acceptable risks should be taken. The health of athletes should be paramount.
So I started to think along lines we all understand. First I considered work and the workplace. What would be expected of us in a similar situation?
Tennis players at the top level are workers like the rest of us, and the ATP, the tournaments, and everything related is either an employer or a market for services. So in any market or employment contract there become legally binding contracts and levels of service that should be maintained by both parties. Boring but key. My point is that all of us turn up for work, often when we really don’t want to, because if we don’t we could be fired. In the same way we also expect to be treated equally in our work. If someone else is doing something dangerous to get the job done, then they should be stopped. As workers, contractors, or suppliers there should be a system that ensures high standards but not at a human cost. Pushing boundaries and getting more from ourselves on a daily basis is what we should all be doing, but not when there is strong evidence it will harm us or others.
That is how I am viewing all these cases. Once I see them as part of a market like any other I can then start to think of what is fair and right on a much more general and real scale, and one I can understand with real experience and insight. All of us work, have worked, or will work. So what is fair to expect of us? How many things at work would you reschedule if you were ill? A meeting or presentation? Maybe. But an interview or product release or court date? Probably not. Definitely not a hearing where you obtain your license to practice your profession. I don’t think I would let anything intervene. What do you think?
Then I started thinking about whether I accept Troicki’s explanation that he wasn’t well which led me to the idea that failing a drugs test is like failing a breathalyser test when you are driving. This is another thing that we are all subject to. Driving is a privilege and not a right. In the UK I understand that refusing a breath test could be grounds for an instant driving ban. However, if you submit to the test but the test is inconclusive or even positive you have a right to appeal and should ask to be tested with a more accurate device at the station.
My point is that a breath test is to prevent dangerous driving and save lives so the rules and regulations are strictly enforced. A drug test in tennis is to prevent the dangers of the substances being tested for both on the individual and his peers. The reasons for the tests are similar. Shouldn’t their enforcement be similar, too?
Should you be able to postpone a breath test or at least tell the officer that you’re ill and agree to take the test later? Not something that I believe is allowed by law. You must submit to the test there and then regardless. The point being that ignorance of the law is not a defence and neither is illness. There is a big difference between refusing a test and not being able to produce a sample.
You can see that I consider this a criminal issue because the side effects of banned drugs are so serious. I don’t consider it as simple as cheating. I consider it as important as life and death because of that. Remember, if adult athletes are taking such dangerous substances, then what are child athletes taking and who is protecting them? See it in that light and you might change your view on drugs. I certainly have.
In summary, by participating in competition all athletes must accept they will be tested. Regulating health and safety must be part of any sport. To compete safely must be a given, not a hope. Regulation is part of all industries for the exact same reason that CEOs of companies must take medical tests, on-call surgeons and doctors must respond when they are needed, and we all must make a court date if we have one. We don’t get to reschedule these things for our own reasons.
Regulating drugs is such a complex issue that sport should not try to find its own solution. There are plenty of known, tried and trust approaches devised by experts in other industries. Learn from these instead. Hence my example of a breathalyser test. My point simply being that anyone at any point could be stopped while driving to be tested. It happens to us all. Should we be able to postpone it or should we be deemed guilty for refusing? I personally cannot see a reason I would not take the test. We are all subject to this so you form your own opinion.
You may start to understand why I would suggest they introduce a license to play tennis on tour — something that could be revoked for not passing a test, and something you must achieve in order to be on tour. The licence is your privilege, and your right to practice. Much like becoming a doctor, barrister, or accountant, your fitness to practice is continually assessed and rigorously enforced.