Sports doping is bad. Dopers are cheats. Harsh punishments are needed for athletes who cheat by doping. I suspect most readers of this review will agree with those broad sentiments.
Henning and Dimeo, two experienced academics, have a much more nuanced take and Doping: A Sporting History is their attempt to bring both evidence and compassion to the debate on how sports doping can be addressed. The book packs a huge amount in addressing broad issus such as what exactly doping is while outlining a broad history of high profile doping cases (which date back further than many likely realise). However, it’s main focus is on the formulation, development and implementation of anti-doping policy over time. Most interesting to me was the correlation between changes in policy and public sentiment around specific scandals – an anecdotal rather than scientific approach to making rules.
Their starting point is to recognise that the status quo isn’t working. As bans have gotten longer, and public shaming has gotten more intense, there is no indication that levels of doping in international sports has decreased. The book charts how anti-doping policy evolved (ad-hoc, limited evidence base, responsive to moral panics), how it has largely failed (just look at Russia) and how it treats athletes (daily monitoring, draconian punishments) and seeks to identify the beginnings of a new athlete-centric approach to anti-doping. One of the most powerful arguments is the point that the approach to anti-doping is based on the obviously flawed assumptions that athletes are fundamentally dishonest and liable to cheat while those administering tests are both honest and competent.
The main recommendation is for athletes to be consulted on, and to be integral to the formulation of, anti-doping policy. Henning and Dimeo call for anti-doping to function in a more reasonable and humane way based on an appropriate sense of what clean short should be. While I’m by nature a sceptic with little sympathy for sports dopers, by considering the issue with less emotion and an athlete focused mindset, they make a convincing argument that a more nuanced approach merits consideration.
While the authors clearly have deep expertise, Doping: A Sporting History is very accessible and of general interest to anyone with an interest in how doping in sport can and should be addressed.