Blowing the whistle

"Twenty-plus-year career, 500 drug controls worldwide, in and out of competition. Never a failed test." - Lance Armstrong, 2012.

"I have never ever failed a drug test. I have taken over 160 drug tests. I have taken tests before, during and after the 2000 Olympics and have never failed a test." - Marion Jones, 2004

It is a sad fact hanging over all professional sport that when it comes to the most elaborate doping conspiracies, testing has failed – a situation familiar to boards trying to achieve cultural change where as a first step protocols have led to compliance in form but not yet compliance in substance.

Notoriously cyclist Lance Armstrong was able to win six Tours de France, powered by a brew of erythropoietin, testosterone and illegal transfusions of blood, all the while hiding behind the smokescreen that he had never failed a test.

Sports Governance

Athlete Marion Jones's iconic performances at the Sydney Olympics in winning three gold medals and two bronze were made possible by a steroid which had colloquially been called 'The Clear', since at the time it failed to show up in tests.

It was only through the testimony of whistleblowers, who were either in their teams or support staff, that the ultra-sophisticated doping programs of Armstrong and Jones were revealed.

Doping programs only succeed through secrecy. – ASADA CEO Ben McDevitt

The case of Yulia Stepanova, the Russian 800m runner, and her husband Vitaly Stepanov, who despite risk to their lives detailed to journalists the systematic flouting of drug controls by Russia, has again shown how vital whistleblowers are to bringing doping into the light.

"Doping programs only succeed through secrecy. Teammates, friends, flat mates, health practitioners, support staff, competitors and partners are often in a position to see and hear things that a drug cheat would prefer remain secret,” says Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) CEO, Ben McDevitt.

To support whistleblowers more comprehensively, directors must must:

  • Communicate organisational values clearly
  • Understand ASIC’s Guidance for Whistleblowers
  • Ensure they don’t have a reporting blind spot
  • Give appropriate consideration to reports of wrongdoing
  • Encourage a culture of transparency

Yet it is often immensely difficult for whistleblowers in sports, as it can be in organisations to feel confident that the repercussions won't be severe if they come forward. Prominent South African sports scientist Ross Tucker has written about a culture of fear in elite sport that is not understood by the general public. “[Whistleblowers] risk everything for a tiny possibility of uncertain change,” Tucker writes.

It’s a far cry from best practice as outlined by whistleblowing expert Professor A.J. Brown for organisations “to have credible processes in place to respond to concerns… and commitment to supporting [whistleblowers] and heading off reprisals.”

The situation though is not quite so bleak in Australia, according to McDevitt.

"The Australian sports scene and the Australian public do not tolerate cheats and dopers and I think that’s of great comfort to people who come forward with information,” McDevitt says.