‘Testing amateurs is morally dubious’

Expert opinion: Dr Paul Dimeo, senior lecturer in sport at the University of Stirling, specialises in the research of drug use in sport and anti-doping policy. Here he discusses how amateurs can inadvertently break anti-doping rules

There has been a proliferation in the drug testing of amateur cyclists in the past few years. This is, on the face of it, a sign of progressive anti-doping — what could be more worthwhile than stopping riders from cheating and risking their health?

But what are the hidden costs? Many amateur cyclists are not given sufficient help and advice, so widespread testing inevitably leads to many prosecutions for inadvertent doping owing to lack of knowledge.

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This happened to 54-year-old Mary Verrando-Higgins, who finished first in her age group at the 2016 USA Cycling Masters and Para Road Nationals in May this year.

She had requested a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) before the race for a medicine prescribed by a doctor.

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This was declined despite Verrando-Higgins having presented the relevant evidence. It appears that the full TUE process had not been followed before Verrando-Higgins decided to take part in the race — remiss on her part, perhaps, but hardly blatant cheating.

USA Cycling recognised “lack of intent” in its decision to ban her for a reduced one year.

Rules are rules, of course. But it’s hard to see what purpose is served here. Verrando-Higgins’s case is far from unique.

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Increased testing this year by USA Cycling led to 10 cases, five of which could be regarded as deliberate cheating. The others were for substances taken either accidentally or on doctor’s advice.

Lack of rider education raises the risk of sanctions for contaminated supplements, medicines and recreational drugs. Amateurs are unlikely to take their cases to arbitration due to the excessive legal costs.

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Further consequences might lie outside sport. Damage to reputation could impact upon career progression and family life due to the ‘drug cheat’ stigma.

One alternative is to stop testing amateurs and implicitly allow doping. Clearly this would be highly controversial, but can we morally accept a system that so frequently punishes the wrong people?