What to do when an athlete is charged with doping offences
No sporting club, league, organisation or association is immune to their athletes engaging in doping.
This article explores what to do in the event one of your athletes is charged with doping offences. We also explore the broad range of consequences that can ensue, and what to do now to proactively minimise the risk in your sporting environment.
What to do first
If an athlete in your community is charged with doping offences, management or board members will need to meet urgently to determine their obligations and next steps.
Whether you are involved in the operations of an association or club, league or other sporting organisation, professional or amateur, there will be a number of issues and stakeholders to consider:
- The attention this charge brings to your organisation
- The impact on the reputation and integrity of your sport/organisation
- Sponsor liaison and relations
- The welfare of the athlete charged with the doping offence/s
- The welfare of fellow athletes
- Coaches, trainers and other support staff; and
- Your broader membership community
Your leadership team will need to ensure that all elements of this charge have been effectively managed.
How you treat the athlete in question during this time, and manage the subsequent effects this charge has put on their fellow athletes, is vital. Equally important is striking a balance that your sport/organisation isn’t perceived to be supporting an alleged “cheat”. Because, as you will be aware, unlike criminal charges, being charged with doping offences generally brings a presumption of guilt.
Before representatives take any action, legal advice should be sought. Any decision making must be made in consultation with a specialist who can advise on the potential legal consequences of any proposed actions.
As specialists in both sports law and employment law, our first steps in situations like this are to review your anti-doping policy, and review any contract you have with the athlete. We also work with other experts to provide you advice about which proposed actions you can move forward with, and identify where you may be at risk.
Taking action without legal advice often creates additional issues, so to be confident about your next steps, consult a specialist lawyer.
Is there a real risk of doping in your organisation?
In Australia last year (2021), there were a number of sports and athletes involved in breaches of anti-doping rules, resulting in a variety of disciplinary outcomes. Here is a breakdown of the breaches, by sport and the number of athletes:
Violations by Sport
(with number of athletes sanctioned)
Weightlifting/Powerlifting – 12
Cycling/BMX/Mountain biking – 5
Rugby League – 5
Rugby Union – 3
Triathlon – 3
Bodybuilding – 2
Australian Rules Football – 2
Soccer – 2
Athletics – 1
Motor Sport – 1
Basketball – 1
Rowing – 1
Source: Sport Integrity Australia (as of 14 February 2022)
These numbers don’t take into account the number of athletes who were investigated and subsequently cleared, or successfully appealed the initial findings of the relevant governing body. As a one-year snapshot, it also doesn’t take into account the sanctions issued in recent years, across other sports. The desire to perform at your best is inherent in every athlete, and at times this may require taking calculated risks, so no sport, team, league or association is immune to this issue. At times, some athletes take greater risks. Doping offences may also occur unintentionally through the use of a tainted supplement, not properly labelled with its contents.
In our work advising clubs, leagues and competitions, both professional and amateur, we see first-hand the impacts of doping charges. The financial and reputational consequences can be significant and long-term. Not only does a single case take a toll on the athlete charged, but also coaching staff, board members and management, who have to deal with the complexities that a doping charge brings to the whole community or organisation.
However, there is good news…
Having the integrity of your club, league, organisation or association called into question is avoidable.
The considerable financial costs that come with managing the fallout, are also avoidable.
Managing the risks
To reduce the risks, you will need the following:
- An anti-doping policy that is up-to-date, comprehensive, and easy to read
- An anti-doping policy education plan and rollout, ensuring a positive culture regarding doping; and
- Management to take responsibility and actively investigate issues of concern, including rumours about doping.
While the legal issues around anti-doping can be complex, the policy must make sense to everyone it applies to. We are consistently surprised, when we are sought to review and update policies like these, how confusing they can be. And no anti-doping policy can be retrospectively considered sufficient if it can be proven that the people it applies to weren’t sufficiently informed and updated about it.
Additionally, as we learned from representing the major parties in the Essendon supplements saga, these risks are best managed when all role holders hold each other to account. Full information about any supplements or medication courses used, or to be used, need to be distributed to athletes and their support personnel (coaches, doctors, physiotherapists). Consultation with Sport Integrity Australia as to any supplement or medication is strongly advisable, with detailed records of such conversations kept. If in doubt, advise athletes not to use any medication or supplement. Medical Practitioners trained in and knowledgeable about the World Anti-Doping Code (WADA) Prohibited List only should be consulted before any medication or supplement is used. This includes for medical conditions such as asthma, hair loss etc.
When one or more athletes are under investigation, as history tells us, this can bring the integrity of other athletes, management, your organisation, and the sport, into question. When faced with these challenges, you will require specialist, straightforward advice and experienced professionals to represent your organisation when called before a tribunal.
Seeking specialist advice
When seeking a lawyer about a matter like this, before providing advice, they should ask you some specific questions. In addition to asking to be brought up to speed on the situation, they should seek to understand specific concerns or sensitivities that may exist in relation to stakeholders and sponsors.
They should also be aware of the rules undertaken by the sport, understand how this process works, and the importance of scientific evidence and awareness of potential scientific errors. It is also ideal if they have experience on both sides of these matters, as this provides additional insights to spot issues that may not be initially apparent.
How you manage an athlete’s doping charge requires sensitivity coupled with clear messaging that sporting integrity is intact in your organisation. The first step to achieving this is to seek specialist advice and have the existing policy reviewed. Who you engage can have a considerable effect on the outcome of any case you are involved in, and the reputational impact on your organisation.
Article by Paul Horvath
For over fifteen years I have successfully acted in numerous doping cases on local, national, and international levels. This is a high-interest area for us. Our SportsLawyer team specialises in advising clubs, leagues, organisations and competitions, both professional and amateur. We provide representation before tribunals in anti-doping cases and review and draft anti-doping policies. Contact us on 03 96420435 or complete our confidential enquiry form here.