Minor doping: massive impact

  • Integrity Blog

The World Anti-Doping Agency’s Operation Refuge report identifies patterns, governance deficiencies and strategies to address the issue of minor doping in sport.

In January, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) released the findings of Operation Refuge, an analysis on the increasing trend of minor doping in sport. The investigation was prompted by an increased number of reports submitted to WADA’s Confidential Information Unit in 2021.

The investigation, conducted by the agency’s Intelligence and Investigations Department, was to determine the reason behind the increase in doping cases among minor athletes, including pre-teen athletes, as well as the emotional, mental and professional impacts that follow an anti-doping rule violation (ADRV).

WADA President Witold Bańka said the data, conclusions and stories within the report “should reverberate loudly” throughout the sporting world. “My hope is that the findings, and more importantly the first-hand accounts from minors and their support networks, will create a strong sense of urgency within the anti-doping community regarding the ways we can better protect youths who find themselves in these types of situations in the future,” Mr Bańka said.

Key findings

The Operation Refuge report identified several key issues which were seen to either contribute to the issue of minor athlete doping or exacerbate it.

Education

Alarmingly, a lack of education was noted as one of the key contributors to increased doping by minors.

Given that many athletes will form their habits in adolescence, it is vital that these young athletes have all the tools necessary to be successful competitors with integrity.

Internal and external pressures

The pressure to succeed and continue on a path to become a professional adult athlete was highlighted as a motivator for doping.

Pressures from coaches to perform at an elite level, while also maintaining impossible physical standards, also contributed to minors using banned substances such as diuretics.

Lack of ADRV support services

The report contained several firsthand accounts of minor athletes who had returned positive tests to prohibited substances and the emotional and mental toll this takes in addition to the risk to their careers.

The report highlighted a need for greater support and rehabilitation services to those who have committed an ADRV.

While sanctions are in place as a deterrent for illegal doping, the report highlighted that, especially where minor athletes are concerned, there should be a focus on education and rehabilitation to allow those athletes to eventually re-enter competitions as stronger and more informed individuals.

Limited academic research

As a matter of context, the investigation attempted to refer to relevant academic literature on the issue but found that no substantive research has been conducted on the motivating factors leading to minor doping. Instead, much of the research was concerned with the ethical issues relating to minor doping.

Minor athletes and ADRVs

As defined by the World Anti-Doping Code, a minor is someone under the age of 18.

Most minor athletes fall under the ‘Protected Persons’ designation and are treated differently to adult athletes as they may not have the full intellectual maturity needed to understand the requirements of the Code.

There have been 1,518 Adverse Analytical Findings (positive tests) reported against 1,416 minors since 2012.

Diuretics, stimulants and anabolic steroids were the highest detected substances amongst minors.

It is important to note that minors are tested in-competition at a substantially higher rate than adult athletes (60% of the time) and, therefore, twice as likely to be caught doping in-competition than out-of-competition.

Sport Integrity Australia did not receive any specific intelligence in relation to minor athletes in Australia as an outcome of WADA’s report.

What Sport Integrity Australia is doing

The Sample Collection Authority and the Doping Control Officer have the authority to make modifications as the situation requires as long as such modifications will not compromise the integrity, identity and security of the Sample. All such modifications shall be documented.

Sport Integrity Australia has procedures in place to support minors through the anti-doping process.

Education first

A primary mandate of Sport Integrity Australia is to educate athletes of all ages on the risks of doping, not just to the spirit and fairness of sport but the risk which is also posed to an athlete’s health.

Where minors are concerned, no underage athlete is tested prior to having participated in anti-doping education.

It’s important to remember that athlete personnel have responsibilities, too. While 11 anti-doping rules apply to athletes, seven apply to support staff. If we become aware of an ADRV by a protected person we are obligated to investigate in order to protect all potentially vulnerable people.

Additionally, Sport Integrity Australia casts a wide net, delivering education sessions beyond professional sporting organisations, athletes and coaches and out to schools and clubs across the country.

Testing

A minor is required to have a support person who is over 18 (e.g. coach, support personnel, parent) with them throughout the testing process.

Sport Integrity Australia has made a decision that if a minor is at home alone, we will not enter the home and we will not conduct a test without a parent or guardian or authorisation from parent/guardian (i.e. if the minor athlete advises that a 20-year-old sibling can be the adult representative we will still ask athlete to call the parent for consent).

Our testing staff will also take extra time to explain the process and make sure they understand all elements of the process and that they know their rights.

Expanding the scope

Whilst we do not believe there is a significant issue of minors doping in Australia, we do continue to monitor and test junior athletes. Unfortunately, Sport Integrity Australia’s data has indicated that as junior athletes progress through elite pathways and development programs, the benefit of lucrative salaries and endorsements can serve as an incentive to taking shortcuts such as doping.

We will continue to allocate resources appropriately to test our junior athletes, across all sports to ensure that risks of underage doping are effectively managed.

Removing the fear factor

In addition to educating minor athletes around the risks associated with doping, Sport Integrity Australia also has a virtual reality experience which allows athletes to go through an online simulated sample collection process. The user learns what they have to do during a doping control test and what their rights and responsibilities are as an athlete. This allows the athlete to not only feel confident in what is required of them during the sample collection process but also establishes the expectations of doping control officers as well.

Safeguarding minor athletes

All of Sport Integrity Australia’s anti-doping investigators have completed an Interviewing Children course. Additionally, all operational matters involving children are conducted in accordance with the agency’s Child Safe Policy.

Protecting the wellbeing and rights of minor athletes is crucial to the work and objective of Sport Integrity Australia and, as such, any concerns or matters of child abuse are promptly referred to law enforcement and child protection agencies.

ADRV support services

In instances where a minor athlete has committed an ADRV Sport Integrity Australia will provide access to independent and confidential counselling services for the athlete.

Additionally, athletes and support staff are able to review the ADRV Handbook which details all components and processes as they relate to a positive result.

2023 testing stats

  • Total Tests: 3959
  • Minors Tested: 82
  • % of minors Tested: 2%

Teenage girl ponders supplement while checking mobile phone

Minors were tested in these sports in 2023:

Aquatics

Athletics

Cricket

Cycling

DanceSport

Fencing

Field Hockey

Football

Gymnastics

Judo

Modern Pentathlon

Motorcycle Racing

Para-Swimming

Rowing

Rugby League

Sailing

Shooting

Skating

Sport Climbing

Weightlifting

Sport Integrity Matters

Find this article in the March 2024 issue of Sport Integrity Matters magazine:

Sport Integrity Matters - March 2024 issue - athlete Ellie Cole on cover

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