Integrity and Athlete Welfare Update: Sport Resolutions Conference 2015

By Marie-Claire O'Kane published on 08 June 2015

On 14 May 2015, the inaugural Sport Resolutions 2015 Conference took place with a theme of “Integrity and Athlete Welfare”. Hosted by John Inverdale, the conference tackled three of the biggest challenges facing the sporting world – doping, match-fixing and head injuries in contact sports.

DRUGS TESTING: NOT THE ONLY WEAPON IN THE FIGHT AGAINST DOPING

David Kenworthy, Chair of UK Anti-Doping opened the conference by emphasising the ethical duties on governing bodies to develop effective methods of combatting doping. This is needed not only to protect the health of athletes, but also to ensure that their integrity and status as positive role models is maintained. Kenworthy cited the extensive lengths taken in the Paralympic Games to ensure that athletes of similar abilities are competing against each other. The regulation of what can and cannot go into an athlete’s body should be no different.

Kenworthy’s key message, however, was the need to recognise the limits of drugs testing, stating that “it should be part of the armoury, but not the only weapon.” For too long, anti-doping organisations have been judged on the number of tests they have conducted. This is so despite the fact that testing addresses only three of the 10 Anti-Doping Rule Violations. According to Kenworthy, there is a need to move away from predictable testing – something more is required. He emphasised that in 2009 UK Anti-Doping adopted an intelligence led approach to enforcement, forging close links with a range of related bodies, including the police. What is required is a coordinated approach - UK Anti-Doping cannot do it all alone.

Jonathan Taylor of Bird & Bird LLP echoed Kenworthy’s sentiments. He recognised that testing is a blunt instrument, but maintained that “it doesn’t need to be”. He pointed to the changes introduced by the 2015 World Anti-Doping Code – a “revolutionary regulatory approach” and concluded that what is required is “intelligent testing.” Taylor emphasised that we should remember that “the real purpose of the fight against doping in sport is vindicating the rights of the clean athlete.

David Kenworthy also warned of the rise in the use of steroids. These are frequently bought online, imported from abroad with little quality control and little information on what they contain. He pointed to the tragic death of Terry Newton, asserting that the relevant sporting authorities need to do all that they can to prevent another such death. According to Kenworthy, there is a stark need for further and better education on this topic.

This theme was later picked up by Chris Cooper, Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Essex. Professor Cooper provided delegates with a few home truths on the clinical realities of doping: “drugs are designed to make sick people better, not better people ‘super good’.” He warned delegates that in the realm of doping, there are many “known unknowns” as very few studies on elite athletes have actually been carried out.

Ultimately, all of the speakers agreed on the pressing necessity for the relevant authorities to continue developing coordinated and increasingly innovative strategies to tackle the threat of doping. In the words of David Kenworthy, what is needed is “intelligence and investigation to instil fear.

 

MATCH FIXING: A SPOT OF BOTHER

Gerard Elias QC, a barrister specialising in Public Inquiries and Criminal Law, spoke on the challenges posed by spot fixing. This involves fixing an event that does not necessarily affect the final result in a game or sporting event. In Elias’s opinion, spot fixing has overtaken match fixing in terms of the threat it poses for the integrity of the sporting world. There is a real fear that fans and spectators will lose interest if they no longer believe that what they see is genuine. The public simply must be able to trust in the integrity of the game.

Elias drew on his experiences as Chair of Discipline for the England and Wales Cricket Board, which involved chairing the disciplinary tribunal into allegations of spot-fixing involving Mervyn Westfield and Danish Kaneria. He also cited the example of Quinten Hann, former Australian snooker player, which he felt demonstrated that even players at the very top of their careers are still vulnerable.

In terms of regulation, betting in the UK is currently well regulated, with bookmakers working closely with sports governing bodies to report any unusual betting patterns. However, Elias emphasised that one of the key challenges for the future is the unregulated betting which takes place outside of the UK. The internet has made this much easier and consequently more of a threat. It would be naïve not to realise that there are organised groups ready and willing to exploit sporting events for gain via the unregulated betting industry.

In Elias’s opinion, there are five key building blocks that are required to combat the threat of spot fixing. First, there is a need to eradicate complacency. Second, sufficient resources must be found to address the problem. Third, the rules and regulations in this area must be fit for purpose. In particular, Elias noted that the international dimension often causes difficulties with prosecutions. Fourth, focus should be placed on the education of participants and administrators. Finally, a coordinated approach to anti spot-fixing is necessary across different sports.

Nigel Mawer, Chair of the Darts Regulatory Authority and Vice Chair of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association echoed the need for a co-ordinated approach to tackling spot fixing. In particular, he stated that there was a need for partnerships across law enforcement, regulators and the betting industry. Greater focus should also be placed on prevention – for example, by taking communication devices away from players during matches, and on education – particularly of younger players. Monitoring and intelligence gathering are also essential. Mawer pointed out that the profile of a corrupt player can quite frequently be quite predictable – common themes include a player who lives beyond his means, or one struggling with gambling problems.

 

HEAD INJURIES: HARD CASES AND DIFFICULT DECISIONS

The final session of the day addressed athlete welfare, with a particular focus on head injuries. Dr William Stewart, consultant and lead neuropathologist at the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow opened this session with a discussion of the medical aspects of concussion, noting that rugby is currently the headline sport for concussion management. His key message was that whilst media and public anxieties on this topic appear to be at an all-time high, the science of our understanding of the problem is in fact still very limited. We do have some answers. For example, we know that concussion is a structural rather than a functional injury. We know that there is a link with dementia and we know that helmets do not necessarily help. However beyond that, the limits of our understanding require the adoption of a cautious and pragmatic approach to concussion management.

Dr Stewart pointed out that the effects of concussion often include speech problems and seizures, however loss of consciousness typically occurs in only one out of 10 concussions. Other cases of concussion can be much more subtle. He warned of the dangers of Second Impact Syndrome, mentioning the tragic case of Ben Robinson, a 14 year old schoolboy who died after suffering concussion during a school rugby match. Dr Stewart referenced the trenchant views of Dr Doug Smith of the University of Pennsylvania, who advises waiting no less than 50 years after a knock to the head leading to concussion before playing again.

The issue was then put to a panel of experts and athletes for discussion. Professor Jack Anderson, specialist in personal injury in sport and Professor of Law at Queen’s University Belfast pointed out that two key issues need to be addressed by regulatory bodies. First, are the medical protocols fit for purpose? If not, there is a problem. Second, are the protocols being properly enforced? This is essential, and more needs to be done than simply having the typical warning poster on the changing room wall.

John Inverdale asked the panel if there was any possibility that concussion was simply the zeitgeist issue in sport, querying whether the current interest might die down eventually in a matter of months. Dr James Robson, Chief Medical Officer of Scottish Rugby responded that the concussion problem has in fact been recognised for years. However, some high profile mistakes have allowed the public to be privy to difficulties medics have had in determining when the players should leave the pitch. The current high level of interest is ultimately very helpful, because it has resulted in players becoming much more informed.

Matt Dawson, Rugby World cup winner, admitted that he worried about his brain. He said that he imagined he was probably concussed at least once a year. Interestingly, Dawson thought that when he was playing, the medics would generally have been unable to tell that he was concussed. It would in fact be his fellow players who would have to inform them. Dawson emphasised that it is very important that players understand what their peers are going through - it should not be considered as a badge of honour to be concussed. He also thought that sports governing bodies need to take responsibility for the disciplinary issues in relation to head injuries – in particular intentional injuries inflicted on other players.

Ultimately, the panel seemed united in their conclusions that head injuries must be treated with substantial care and caution. What is required is a safe and pragmatic approach, based on an attitude of “better safe than sorry.

 

THE CHALLENGES AHEAD

The conference speakers provided much food for thought on the way forward in dealing with the twin concerns of promoting athlete welfare and maintaining integrity in sport. It is striking to note that in just the few short weeks that have passed since the conference, we have already seen (i) the high profile arrest of several FIFA officials on suspicion of corruption; (ii) accusations of violating anti-doping rules levelled at top athletics coach Alberto Salazar; and (iii) the mass arrest of over 50 people in Italy in connection with match fixing. The challenges in these areas, it would seem, pose a real and present threat for the sporting world. Given recent events, it appears likely that maintaining integrity in sport will continue to be a headline issue for the foreseeable future.

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About the Author

Marie-Claire O'Kane

Marie-Claire O'Kane

Marie-Claire O’Kane is a barrister at 4 New Square in London. She is developing a sports law practice and her experience includes cases involving both regulatory and insurance issues arising in basketball, rugby and darts. Prior to coming to the Bar, Marie-Claire was a Fulbright Scholar at Harvard Law School and visiting tutor in law at the London School of Economics and King’s College London.

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