Zero tolerance on doping, zero privacy for athletes?

Athletes are under suspicion these days. After a series of doping revelations from top cyclists, sprint champions and marathoners, anti-doping agencies are determined to eradicate performance-enhancing drugs from sports. But a new Tilburg University study reveals that the war on doping is seriously undermining the privacy of athletes.

Does the zero tolerance policy to doping amount to zero privacy for athletes? In a new report requested by the European Commission, Tilburg University researchers conclude that the fight against doping comes with a serious invasion of athletes’ privacy. Under the current anti-doping regime, the bodily integrity of athletes is not respected and their personal information is not protected.

“Urine samples are taken with a doping control officer having direct visual of the athlete’s genitalia”

Day and night

The researchers, led by privacy and big data expert Bart van der Sloot, paint a grim picture of the way anti-doping data is currently collected, stored and shared.

According to the authors, the ways in which information is gathered are extremely privacy-invasive. Athletes can be subjected to doping tests day and night, without advance notice, both in-competition and out-of-competition.

In order to determine whether athletes are using performance-enhancing substances, blood and urine samples are gathered. When a blood sample is collected from an athlete, his or her body is entered with a needle, which can be seen as a an intrusion on the athlete’s bodily integrity. Urine testing can be intrusive too, the authors write: “Urine samples are taken with a doping control officer having direct visual of the athlete’s genitalia.”

Published online

Not just the gathering of information can be seen as an invasion of the privacy of athletes. According to Bart van der Sloot and his colleagues, the personal data of athletes can be stored for long periods of time, and shared between authorities and anti-doping organizations.

When an athlete gets caught using a banned substance, the sanctions are severe. Doping suspesions can last years, or in some cases even a lifetime. A doping suspension also has serious consequences for the athlete’s privacy. Under the current regime, anti-doping agencies are free to publish the names and sanctions of dopers online, as long as they notify the athlete first.

Microchip

Are anti-doping methods becoming too radical? Earlier this month, the chief executive of the World Olympians, Mike Miller, said that extreme anti-doping measures are necessary to protect clean sport. Miller even suggested that we should insert a microchip into athletes, so they can be monitored more effectively. “We chip our dogs”, Miller told a Westminster Media Forum on integrity and duty of care in sport. “We’re prepared to do that and it doesn’t seem to harm them. So, why aren’t we prepared to chip ourselves?”

For Miller, the privacy of athletes is a non-issue. “Some people say it’s an invasion of privacy”, he said. “Well, sport is a club and people don’t have to join the club if they don’t want to, if they can’t follow the rules.”

In their report, Bart van der Sloot and his colleagues don’t mention implanted microchips as an alternative for existing anti-doping measures. Instead, they remind us that it’s not just the integrity of sports that needs protection. In the midst of blood tests, whereabouts systems, surprise visits by doping officials, and microchips, who protects the privacy and integrity of athletes?

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