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The Forbidden: Athletes and Doping

* Written by Taamara Rajeev Nair


A term that the common people are aware of is “Doping.” A very common term that means the use of banned substances in competitive sports. Performance Enhancing drugs is yet another term for the drugs used by athletes to improve their athletic performance. It is the usage of prohibited drugs or other methods to gain an unfair advantage over the other players in a competitive sports arena. The usage of various biomedical research substances like steroids or growth hormones, terbutaline, erythropoietin (EPO), originally developed to treat human diseases, but abused by athletes to gain an unfair advantage over their competitors is a major flaw in the system.

Doping is seen with the eyes of scepticism. Doping can take the shape of drugs and other substances which will be the subject of this article.

The World Anti-Doping Agency

The World Anti-Doping Agency, WADA, an international independent agency, established in the year 1999 is composed and funded by sports movements and governments of the world. It is a body that engages in education, scientific research, development of anti-doping capacities, and monitoring of the World Anti-Doping Code. The 2015 World Anti-Doping Act is now replaced with the 2021 World Anti-Doping Act. The most well-known case of anti-doping violations in India includes Prithvi Shaw, an Indian cricketer, who was asked to provide a urine sample as part of BCCI’s anti-doping testing program on February 22, 2019, in Indore, Madhya Pradesh. He was handed an eight-month ban after testing positive for terbutaline, a banned substance commonly found in cough syrups. In the year 2000, Seema Punia, a discus throw competitor, tested positive for a banned substance and was stripped off of the gold medal won at an event in Chile. The BCCI in 2017, held Yusuf Pathan, an Indian cricketer, liable for violating the anti-doping rules and was banned for a period of five months. The BCCI is the Board of Control for Cricket in India. It is a governing body for cricket in India and is under the jurisdiction of Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports. It was founded in the year 1928 headed by Sourav Ganguly. Its headquartered in Mumbai, India. This shows us that the concrete body of BCCI created and rules formulated by the WADA, are being strictly applied. The tests are done on a regular basis and such violations caused by famous sports personalities are not overlooked. In the context of sport, a third party could be a coach, trainer, or sports administrator. When entering an elite or professional sports programme, players are now required to sign a waiver of medical confidentially. In circumstances where the athlete's medical condition affects training or competition participation, such a waiver authorises medical personnel to share the athlete's medical information with coaching and non-medical support staff.

Marijuana a legal substance?

In Tokyo Olympics 2020, Sha’Carri Richardson, an American track field sprinter, was suspended for one month due to the failure to pass a marijuana drug test. Richardson was found with Marijuana in her system which according to her was consumed to cope with the loss of her biological mother. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) suspended Sha’Carri Richardson for a period of one month beginning from June 28th, 2021. We need to keep in mind that the U.S like a few other countries have approved the usage of recreational marijuana and do not consider its consumption as unlawful or illegal. The issue raised in Richardson’s case was whether the US department’s decision to suspend Sha’Carri was fair and justified. Many believed that it was unfair to suspend her for a month and that she was in a bad mental state and resorted to such a coping mechanism. Rep. Alexandria Ocasia Cortez, a Democrat from New York stated that “the IOC should reconsider its suspension of Ms. Richardson and any athletes penalized for cannabis use.” Many have argued that the suspension of Ms Richardson must be reverted and that no athlete must be suspended on the consumption of marijuana or failing the drug test. The arguments also include that marijuana is a drug that has been legally accepted by many countries including the U.S. therefore WADA must accept the usage of marijuana for recreational purposes. But the essential issue that lies here is that there are still many countries where marijuana is listed under illegal substances. The WADA is a huge organization that acts as a platform that respects and accommodates the laws of all countries and inclusion of marijuana as an acceptable drug among the athletes would only lead to conflict among the other countries which are yet to include marijuana as a legal substance. Another argument raised was that marijuana does not account for a performance-enhancing drug. Marijuana has been listed among the prohibited substances under WADA because it acts as a possible health risk that impairs decision making and reaction time.

The Future of Doping Laws

The major reason for Anti-Doping laws to be put into place is to ensure that there are no health risks or fatalities caused due to drugs. Doping may lead to obstruction of regular blood flow, abnormal changes in hormones, increased risk of heart attack, rapid increase in muscle mass without proper cardiac adaption. I believe that the abuse of drugs by sportsmen is going to become a widespread occurrence in the future. Researchers, medics, and biologists will be in high demand, and they will play an important part in sports. I believe that in the future, we will all become slaves to the usage of various substances currently under the illegal substances will be listed under legal substances, with even athletes opting to use recreational drugs. Another possibility is that athletes willing to use such substances will be able to do so lawfully. There may be a separate segment of the Olympics, similar to the Paralympics, where competitors who choose to use other substances to obtain a competitive advantage would be permitted to compete. Formula One racing, a prominent sport, can serve as a good analogy. Highly intelligent mechanics are employed to construct the cars, working behind the scenes. A bunch of engineers and mechanics work on constructing and enhancing the performance of a single car. Similarly, a staff of qualified researchers, doctors, and biologists would be available to athletes that test and use various drugs in order to boost their performance. Such researchers and biologists would be working on increasing the performance of one athlete. A major league in the United States National Football League (NFL), have changed their policy and a new NFL marijuana policy has been established. The testing period for marijuana has been reduced from 4 months to 2 weeks at the start of the NFL camp. 2021, has seen many changes in their rules. The players will also not be suspended if tested positive for marijuana. They will instead be reviewed by a panel of medical experts who will decide if the player requires any medical treatment. Punitive sanctions are only imposed as a last resort for repeat offences and if it is no longer in the best interests of their health to continue competing. This approach helps in decreasing the public humiliation faced by the players when suspended due to drug abuse which also affects their mental health. It also shows us that the world is evolving and making changes in its customary practices and adapting to the new laws.


The steps being taken by WADA and other bodies to regulate the abuse of substances and unfair means to gain an advantage over the other competitors is commendable. But despite WADA's publication of prohibited substances and doping procedure lists, the sports sector appears to be falling behind in following the laws and regulations. Regardless of the fact that the guidelines have been in place since the early 1990s, we continue to face challenges that result in non-compliance with the set rules and regulations. We're currently debating how to weigh the possible benefits of doping against the perceived risks. The steps taken are in the line of ensuring a safe environment for a clean sport. The Non-Olympic committees can change their policy like the NFL, and quickly adapt to the changing views of the usage of such substances. In order for WADA and other anti-doping agencies to even consider lifting the ban on recreational marijuana, all the countries across the globe must join forces and legalize the usage of cannabis otherwise known as marijuana to prevent any conflict arising out of the policy change. To maintain peace among the people of various nations, the anti-doping agencies must wait until cannabis is listed as a legal substance in all the countries. The Non-Olympic committees can change their policy and quickly adapt to the changing views of the usage of such substances. But currently, the usage of the listed illegal substances goes against the spirit of sports. However, rules are subject to change as the world evolves and accepts new information and knowledge by changing their customs.

*The author is a law scholar of IFIM Law School, Bengaluru.

(The image used here is for representational purposes only)


  1. The Economic Times, 'Definition of BCCI' (19 August 2021)

  2. American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, 'Doping' SportsMedToday (2021)

  3. World Anti-Doping Agency, 'Home' (2021)

  4. National Football League, 'Home' (2021)

  5. David Barry 'NFL marijuana policy: What are the fines and suspension rules after a positive drug test' Sportskeeda (3 July 2021)

  6. Spectrum News Staff, 'Reps. Ocasio-Cortez, Raskin ask anti-doping agency to overturn Sha’Carri Richardson's suspension' Spectrum News NY1 (5 July 2021)

  7. Zac Al-Khateeb, 'What happened to Sha'Carri Richardson? Explaining the runner's Olympic weed ban controversy' SportingNews (30 July 2021)

  8. World Athletics, 'Profile: Sha'Carri RICHARDSON' (2021)

  9. U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, 'Home' (2021)

  10. World Anti-Doping Code (2015)

  11. World Anti-Doping Code (2021)

  12. MInistry of Youth Affairs and Sports (2021)

  13. TNN, 'Sports doping scandals that rocked India' (10 August 2019)


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