Doping in sport: a question of culture…and compromise?

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Leigh Thompson, Policy Manager at the Sport and Recreation Alliance, on why it is imperative organisations put in place the right culture and behaviours to protect the integrity of sport. 

Sport has generated a lot of media attention this week following the publication of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s report, Combatting Doping in Sport. Among many things, the report reinforces the importance of sports bodies developing the right internal culture and behaviours to minimise the risk of conduct prejudicial to the integrity of sport. It also raises some broader questions over the ‘no compromise’ funding policy which underpins elite sport.  

The new Code for Sports Governance makes clear that all sports organisations receiving public funding must now show they recognise the potential threats to integrity, including doping, and put in place measures to protect their sports. Sports which do not comply risk having funding withheld or withdrawn.  

But it’s not just about compliance; culture is equally important and integrity starts at the top. This is why the Alliance’s own ThPrinciples of Good Governance for Sport and Recreation make it clear that “the board should set organisational values and standards and lead by example so they are implemented widely.”  

As the Committee’s report shows, sports rules cannot (and probably never will) be drafted in such a way as to eliminate all grey areas. And in elite high-performance sport where athletes and coaches are striving for every competitive edge, individuals may well seek to test the precise boundaries of these grey areas. In this context, relying on simple adherence to the rules is not enough – embedding a culture of openness and a willingness to challenge questionable behaviour at an early stage is critical to safeguarding integrity.  

While not the focus of the Committee’s inquiry, the report and surrounding media coverage also raises some related and uncomfortable questions about the extent to which the ‘no compromise’ funding policy might incentivise unethical behaviour. ‘No compromise’ has delivered huge success in terms of medals but it can be argued that the significant financial risk attached to achieving medal targets can, in some circumstances, lead to a ‘win at any price’ approach – one which heightens the risk of athletes and others around them stepping over the line.   

This is not an excuse for improper behaviour and sports bodies must always seek to have robust systems in place supported by a strong culture led by the board. But it is beholden on us as a sector to examine all the factors, including the design and implementation of the funding system for high-performance sport, which might contribute to integrity risks.   

We should not forget that the quality of governance support provided to the sports sector is also critical. Many sports organisations rely on volunteers – even at board level – and it is therefore vital to make sure our people have the skills and training they need, particularly in relation to integrity.   

The Alliance has developed The Principles and the benchmarking tool to help our members but the sector can’t do this alone; Government and the Home Sports Councils must also play their part in supporting the sector to embed appropriate cultures and behaviours which will, in turn, contribute to longer-term change.