Opinion: The ski doping case and ethical choices in sport

Joe Noormets.
Joe Noormets. Source: Talllinn University

The principles of ethics in sport are clearly set out in the Estonian Sports Charter, and therefore sportspeople involved in the recent doping scandal cannot plead ignorance of the rights and wrongs of sporting activity, says Joe Noormets, lecturer in sports sociology at Tallinn University (TLÜ).

As regards the recent case, which has seen two Estonian skiers, Andreas Veerpalu and Karel Tammjärv, detained by Austrian police at the world championships, as well as top ski coach Mati Alaver detained briefly at home in Estonia by the prosecutor's office, the facts of the matter are clear, Mr Noormets writes. The actors (ie. the athletes and coaches), the actions (engaging in blood doping, or facilitating it or at the very least being aware of it and turning a blind eye), how they engaged in the actions (ie. consciously and freely), for what purpose (improving their performance and gaining and advantage) and in what manner (systematically and not by chance) are all clear. However, what is not clear yet is how the choices made indicate the morality of the people involved. I will choose to exam this based on Aristotelian reasoning, writes Mr Noormets.

Nobody acted against their will

According to the public invormation, it can be concluded that noone acted out of ignorance or against their will. However, due to the silence of some of the parties, it is still unclear whether Andreas Veerpaul acted voluntarily, or under duress from his father, Andrus Veerpalu [a three-time olympic medallist former ski star who himself was the centre of a doping case some years ago-ed.]. But it can be said with certainty that the actions were not based in ignorance.

Section 11(1) of the Sport Act 2005 states that: ''Sportsmen, sportswomen and coaches are required to know and comply with anti-doping rules which are provided for in the World Anti-doping Code and which are adopted pursuant to the Code''. The European Code of Sport Ethics similarly defines ''fair play'' to exclude fraudulent activities and doping in sport, and that participants must behave in their sporting activitiy in a way which sets a good example for children and younger people. There additionally must be no way in which competition can be demonstrated as unfair in some cases, and justified in others.

Thus, it cannot be argued that the persons involved in the recent doping case were unaware of these ethical sporting conditions and the correct ways to attain sporting goals.

Additionally, the athletes in question are not egnaged in a totalitarian, but a democratic sports system [two Austrian athletes and a German Doctor were seized by Austrian police at the same time as the Estonian skiers, as was a Kazakh skier, Alexei Poltoranin, who is trained by Andrus Veerpalu-ed.]. In such a system, training, competition and coaching are all voluntary activities. The individuals have not been put under duress or in a life-or-death situation. Again, the athletes and coaches could in no way have acted out of ignorance or under duress.

However, knowing the conditions of this activity, its starting point has been driven by both athletes and coach(es). Thus the actions are conscious and voluntary; the question as to the parties' motivation will be addressed below.

What was behind the choices made?

Since the latest doping case does not exist in isolation – doping has been a repeated activity which athletes and trainers seem to have acted in systematically and not in the heat of the moment, they have conversely made choices. But what is behind these choices?

Testimonies given by some of the sportsmen, at least on some of their choices, can be attributed to a desire to improve results and succeed, even to win. Given the results of the athletes engaged in doping, this may be understandable, but as a basis for making a choice it is rather foolish. It would be unreasonably to choose that which could not be achieved by itself, in other words. As Aristotle wrote, desire is more for the end, whereas choice is about what forwards the end.

Although doping may have proved effective, the wrong tools have been chosen to achieve the goal, ie. tools forbidden in the pursuit of sporting success [leaving aside any legality of substances in general-ed.]

Athletes made a conscious and volutary choice

Excusing the athletes from acts of stupidity, only one other conclusion can remain from the information we have thus far. They have made conscious and voluntary choices to engage in blood doping and, after weighing up the costs and benefits, chose illicit ways of doing this instead of authorised ones – consciously and repeatedly.

What is the story with the coaches?

Without knowing anything about the nature of the trainers involved in the case [another trainer, Anti Saarepuu, appeared at a press conference with Karel Tammjärv the morning after the latter was released by Austrian police on the evening of 28 February-ed.], according to the testimony of those familiar with Mati Alaver and Andrus Veerpalu, neither can be considered by their nature or from skiing activity to be a nefarious person. Being busy and dedicated ski coaches, they have to make prudent choices.

Both Alaver and Veerpalu had proven coaching skills; in moral terms, they are subject to a code of coaching in sports. The choices they made as coaches and the basis for their actions must be looked at in the light of this framework.

This coaching code of conduct specifies that: ''the trainer must ensure the prevention of the use of doping and forbidden methods, consistently explaining to trainees the harmful effects of doping and prohibited methods," and the coach must: "understand and respect the content and meaning of the competition rules in training and competitions, ensuring equal opportunities for all athletes. and competition terms ".

Since the trainer's ethical requirements apply to all coaches, both coaches [ie. Alaver and Veerpalu-ed.] have deliberately violated their activities. An appeal to ignorance does not help here either, since ignorance is related to neglect, possibly even relating to the coaches themselves, any potential ignorance within this framework is a factor that if anything increases guilt.

Most probably we cannot see Alaver and Veerpalu as people who have no cares or concerns about anything. Thus, their choices, without knowing the motivation of their acts, means they must have knowingly violated the principles of the coaches' ethics code.

Considered goals

The conscious choice is based on consideration of goals. However, if the goal is clear, the appropriate means to achieve them must be discussed. This, in turn, requires research on the resources themselves and their use.

When the results of research lead to the reasoning that it is viable to acheive objectives using illicit means, this is a conscious and pre-meditated choice.

For athletes, coaches give the initial direction for their actions, and how an athlete will act often depends on the coach. At least in Alaver's case, in the light of information we have so far, it is clear that he presented athletes with the choice he made, in other words he accepted blood doping as a way to improve results.

To sum up, since this particular case of doping, done voluntarily and knowingly in spite of the conventions of the sport, involves wrong deeds rather than right, those persons associated with it as they have acted, have acted in a morally evil way.

If both both athletes and coaches have made a conscious choice to engage in unethical actions, then they have voluntarily chosen to be unethical themselves.


Joe Noormets lectures in areas including: sociology of sport, sociology of leisure, sociology of the body, history of sport, theories of play, theories of leisure and recreation, ethics in sport and physical education, sports organisation and administration. His reaserch areas include the Social, cultural and historical analysis of the human body and embodiment, the social construction of the body, and body culture(s) studies (related to sport, play, physical culture, physical education).

Editor: Andrew Whyte

Hea lugeja, näeme et kasutate vanemat brauseri versiooni või vähelevinud brauserit.

Parema ja terviklikuma kasutajakogemuse tagamiseks soovitame alla laadida uusim versioon mõnest meie toetatud brauserist: