How much is too much?

July 24, 2012

With the London Olympic/Paralympic Games about to begin, some people are questioning the amount of money being spent on anti-doping efforts at the Games. Fair question, particularly as the world economy sputters along and public authorities around the world underwrite the lion’s share of anti-doping costs during the Games and throughout the year.

To answer the question, you have to look at what’s at stake and the value for money or return on investment that anti-doping efforts provide. The Tour de France, Major League Baseball, the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) – and just about any international sport business for that matter – could probably answer in monetary terms what’s at stake. And of course, the dollar figure would be staggering. But we’ve come to learn that there is much more at stake than simply the economic health of a sport and the sponsors who make enormous profits for their shareholders. If doping is not addressed seriously and effectively at the highest levels of sport, the fallout will ultimately lead to a public health nightmare.

It is all well and good to suggest that adults playing sport at the highest levels are in the business of risk taking, and doping substances and methods are just another risk that should be available to them if they choose. The problem with this logic is the following: the vast majority – and I mean overwhelming majority of athletes at this level – do not want to engage in a game of Russian Roulette with their lives. They do not want to take the risk of dying young to chase a gold medal or secure a professional sport contract. But if no one is policing the use of these substances and methods, then that vast majority of athletes who want to compete clean feel they have no choice – they must dope to keep the playing field level. Their innate sense of fairness tells them they must dope or drop out of sport.

So let’s play that out a little further. Now we have the majority of athletes using all kinds of substances and methods known to be harmful to an athlete’s health and these are the role models that our children are watching and emulating. Now we have young children ill-equipped to assess the risks and make an informed choice, using these substances and methods because their heroes do. Now we have a major public health problem of epidemic proportions on our hands.

What’s at stake? In the first instance, what is at stake is people turning away from sports who refuse to address the problem of doping seriously and effectively. Fans stop watching; parents stop enrolling their kids. Ultimately, the death of their sport is at stake and all the money they make from their sport dies with it. So, where is the return on investment for our anti-doping efforts? Well, one simple equation would be to look at the billions of dollars the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) business generates for themselves and their stakeholders. It is estimated that $30 million (CDN) will be spent on anti-doping for the London Olympic/Paralympic Games. What is that as a percentage of the billions of dollars the IOC stands to make? I’d say that’s a pretty good return on investment! What if we compared the cost of anti-doping spent by Major League Baseball to the payroll of the New York Yankees? The point is that the money sport generates for its owners is well worth protecting by the modest amount of money invested in anti-doping.

But most importantly, what is at stake is the health and well-being of our children. And what price would we put on their lives?