Is criminalising cheating the way forward?

The recent decision by the German government to begin the process of introducing legislation that would criminalise doping in professional sport has brought to the fore one of the most contentious issues in modern day sport.

Doping is a particularly controversial issue in Germany, owing to the history of abuse of performance enhancing drugs and hormone injections in the former German Democratic Republic prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. If successful, this would be the first time that the use of illegal performance enhancement methods would be a criminal offence in Germany, and German officials will hope to send a strong message to any athlete considering using such methods. However, we must ask, where will the line be drawn if cheating in sport is now to be considered a crime?

There is no doubt that there are some forms of cheating in sport that deserve to be criminalised. The most obvious of these is match fixing, mainly due to the financial element involved when match fixing is orchestrated by those involved in betting on sport. In this case, it is very obvious how and why athletes would be criminalised for cheating as their actions directly lead to people being defrauded.

The jail sentences given to the three Pakistani cricketers for ‘spot fixing’ were in addition to five year bans from the sport for all three, and some might speculate that, in cases where the only motivation to cheat was a directly competitive one rather than for any personal financial gain, a ban and/or stripping of medals and titles might be more appropriate than criminal proceedings.

This has long been the standard for professional level sport and in the eyes of many it is a system that works. A ban from sport may be damaging to an athlete’s career but it does not prevent them from contributing usefully to society in a different capacity in the way a jail sentence might.

There are numerous examples of banned sportspeople who have gone on to make useful contributions to society as a kind of penance for their dishonest actions and some who have even gone on to return to their sport and compete with distinction.

Perhaps the best example of this is American sprinter Justin Gatlin who returned to athletics in 2010 after serving a four year drug ban. Whilst Gatlin’s career was hugely damaged by the ban and his legacy as a competitor undoubtedly tarnished, he has proven himself to be a world class competitor and has also used his high profile to raise funds for charity since his return to competition. It is perhaps unlikely that he would have had the opportunity to do either had he faced jail time.

This forces us to ask whether jail-time for the simple act of cheating is either necessary or the most reasonable and just course of action. Is it not enough that athletes caught using illicit methods to achieve success in their sport will face the contempt of their peers, have their legacy tarnished and have their achievements stripped from them?

While it is understandable that those who cheat in order to defraud people betting on sport will face jail time, surely those who cheat for the sole purpose of competitive gains are punished harshly enough by being excluded from the sport they love and that has inevitably been a huge part of their life. If we seek to criminalise athletes who use performance enhancing drugs, how do we then decide which forms of cheating require a criminal trial? It is a fine line to tread and the German government must be careful that they do not open a metaphorical Pandora’s Box of controversy.

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