Not fun and games: organised crime and sport

Also published at The Conversation. Co-authored by Ciannon Cazaly.

The findings of the Australian Crime Commission’s (ACC) report Organised Crime and Drugs in Sport have come as a shock to many and become an enormous media story.

Should we be surprised? Are these just the actions of a few bad apples? And just how serious is the threat from organised crime?

Not just a bunch of bad apples

The problem is not just a few deceitful and devious players. Though there may be some bad apples, all athletes in elite competitive sport face clear incentives to take performance and image enhancing drugs (PIEDs). Doing so can rapidly become normalised within a team or an entire sport.

The incentive that creates demand for PIEDs is simple. To win, you must beat the competition. In team sports, teammates may even compete with each other for a place on the team. Even if most athletes stay within the rules governing their sport (as we expect them to) there remains an incentive to break or stretch them to get that extra edge. Some may be able to resist temptation – others may not.

Athletes’ incentives are complemented by incentives for clubs, teams and/or sporting organisations to turn a blind eye to doping, or even assist them in doing so (for an extreme example, see the Festina affair). Many clubs and teams care about their players (for example, major football teams employ staff to support player welfare). However, they also have a responsibility to fans, members, shareholders, sponsors, or – in the case of Olympic and AIS sports – the Australian government and Australian people. They exist to win.

Medical practitioners, along with sports scientists employed by sporting organisations, are at the coalface of this inherent tension between the need to win and a responsibility for the welfare of athletes. They must satisfy the organisation’s desire to have the athlete compete and win, while considering their long-term health and welfare. As the ACC report notes, they sometimes push the legal and regulatory boundaries as they do so.

How does doping become widespread and normal?

Medical intervention is a normal and accepted (even expected) part of elite sport. To deal with pain and injury, athletes frequently take legal drugs and seek the support of medical practitioners in order to be able to continue to compete. Supplements, protein, vitamins and carbohydrate loading are all just a regular part of the routine for athletes.

For an athlete who has already pushed themselves to the limit, one more tablet or injection can seem like little more than an extension of what they are already doing – even if it crosses a boundary into semi-legality or illegality.

None of this excuses athletes who dope or the staff that help them do so. It should not and must not exonerate or excuse behaviour on the part of athletes or other staff that breaches their sports’ code. But it does explain how they may find themselves in this position, and that it is important that – as more information is uncovered – the focus remains on the incentives in place that push people towards taking such substances, rather than attributing blame to individuals solely on the basis that they are or were bad people.

Organised crime exists to meet illegal demand

When the supply of a good or service is prohibited, but demand remains, efforts to meet that demand end up being – almost by definition – cases of organised crime. Even for individuals involved in supplying the product, this requires protection from the law, and the provision of illegal protection is something organised crime specialises in.

As the ACC report notes, “persons and entities who supply certain substances to athletes which are prohibited under the WADA Code do not commit a crime in Australian jurisdictions.” Organised crime is involved in the illegal importation of substances without a permit and the subsequent distribution of the substances.

For example, substances may be smuggled from Europe or Mexico to the United States, and from there to Australia. As with other illicit substances, using multiple small shipments reduces the chances of getting caught (and the ‘breakage’ if a shipment is caught). The ACC report also notes the role of grey and black markets for pharmaceuticals on the internet.

Why is this a threat?

The ACC claims that “if left unchecked, it is likely that organised criminals will increase their presence in the distribution of peptides and hormones in Australia.” They’re right, and what should also be of concern is not just that the distribution of PIEDs will increase, but also that other organised criminal activity will grow and expand as a result. Organised crime tends to use established networks to diversify its activities.

For example, if an organised crime group has developed a relationship with (or has information they can use against) an athlete, it can serve as leverage to get them to participate in match-fixing. Match-fixing is not only a source of profit for organised criminals, but is also a great way to launder money. Sporting organisations are not unaware of this risk – see, for example, yesterday’s statement from the AFL acknowledging the risks of organised criminals ‘grooming’ players for precisely this purpose.

If you think these are just problems for sport, bear in mind that in addition to being used to promote match-fixing, networks and connections established to smuggle PIEDs into the country can be used to traffic other prohibited substances, like hard narcotics or weapons. This is particularly the case if and when an established networks are lucrative – and in this case, the ACC report estimates that the mark-up on PIEDs is up to 140%.

To make matters worse, this sort of diversification involves corrupting or drawing upon already corrupted public officials. Providing protection from the law requires corrupting the law, and establishing relationships with public officials that enable the supply of the prohibited goods or services to continue (in much the same way as Customs officers are alleged to have been corrupt and complicit in smuggling PIEDs and other illicit drugs into the country). The rapid increase in PIEDs and other substances smuggled into the country as reported by the ACC suggests these networks of organised criminals and corrupt officials have already become more entrenched and/or widespread.

If the substances are to remain prohibited, efforts must be made to address not only the supply of these substances, but also the demand. This is no easy task.

For those involved, there are legal, moral and social barriers to the use of PIEDs. But those legal barriers can be blurry (the ACC notes that supplying athletes with some such substances is not technically a crime), and moral and social barriers can shift within groups.

As a result, they may not always outweigh the incentive to win.