Is doping a criminal offence in Canada?

December 10, 2014

Seems like an odd question with the obvious and factual answer being: no. But let’s look a little more closely at the question and consider whether perhaps doping ought to be a criminal offence in Canada.

This week the German government will be tabling draft legislation intended to make doping a criminal offence in that country, with sentences ranging up to three years in jail. To the average person this might at first blush seem like an extreme measure. They might think, “It’s only sport after all!”

But Germany is not the first country to take this step. Italy, for example, has already made doping a criminal offence. We have even heard from a number of Canadian athletes that they would like to see Canada take a similar approach. Clean athletes want stronger deterrence and making doping against the law would certainly do that.

Sport as a public asset in Canada can produce enormous benefits for those who participate, for the communities that support it and for our country as a whole. Witness the many benefits we experienced during and after the Vancouver Games of 2010. The Games united us as a country, they brought communities closer together as we cheered on our hometown heroes and they inspired youth to get involved in sport and to dream big. What if a Canadian medal-winning athlete had been caught for doping? What would the legacy of the Games have been then? Doping undermines the integrity of sport and in so doing robs sport of many of its positive benefits.

Doping involves the use of prohibited substances or methods to gain a competitive advantage in sport. The use of these substances and methods carry significant health risks for athletes. Without anti-doping rules in sport, clean athletes would feel pressured to place their bodies and health at risk to keep up with the dopers. In turn, young aspiring athletes would feel they too have to take these serious health risks if they want to pursue high-performance sport. The majority of athletes and the Canadian public want clean sport. Clean sport is not just in the interest of sport – it is squarely in the public interest as well.

So, we have a set of harmonized rules in sport governing doping behaviour. These are set out in the World Anti-Doping Code and applied in Canada under the Canadian Anti-Doping Program. Doping by athletes contravenes these rules. Doping is cheating. It is one athlete misrepresenting their performance to other athletes, and to the general public, as one that is taking place within the rules of sport when in fact it is not.

As of January 2015, the consequences for being caught intentionally doping in sport under the World Anti-Doping Code will increase to four years for a first offence. That is a pretty significant penalty to be sure, but still doping will continue as some athletes and those who advise them will be prepared to roll the dice on these consequences. Would jail time and a criminal record deter athletes considering doping more than the current World Anti-Doping Code does?

We know that certain drugs on the Prohibited List are illegal and their importation and sale are also illegal in Canada. That, of course, does not make doping a criminal offence. However, if we agree that intentional doping is a deceitful effort to gain results, money, recognition and fame that rightfully belongs to another person, then this is a form of fraud. If we look at doping as one athlete on performance-enhancing drugs taking away  sporting opportunities, funding, money and status, from another athlete who competes clean, then we could see doping as a form of theft. Fraud and theft are both criminal offences in Canada. Maybe it’s time to treat doping as a criminal offence. What do you think?