The Challenge of Elite Sport After Lockdown

The Re-Emergence of Competitive Sport after Covid-19

Slowly but surely, competitive sport is starting to emerge from the global pandemic and re-take its place in societies around the world.  The challenges faced by sports are huge and variedhow to keep competitors, officials and spectators safe being the number one priority.

During “normal” times, elite competitors in many sports lead their lives under the spotlight of constant scrutiny and publicity, and in a world where human contact and social media make it possible for almost every wakening hour to be documented, the “long sleep” of lockdown has seen many sports men and women leading lives devoid of the constant scrutiny that they are used to

Pretty girl with a black top and dark green pants runs in a path in the middle of the rocks

The Potential Sports Black Shadow After Lockdown

Whilst for many this may be a welcome relief, unfortunately there is a potential side effect that could cast a shadow on sport for many months to come – doping. Under normal circumstances, many elite sports people have to comply with the World Anti-Doping Agency’s rule of “whereabouts”, which simply means that they must inform their national anti-doping agency where they are going to be for one hour each day, 365 days a year.  The reason for this is quite simple – it means that they can be tested for the presence of banned substances in their blood or urine during their identified hour on any day of the year.  Failure to be present on 3 or more occasions when the drug testers turn up on the door step or the training ground will almost certainly result in a ban, so the system acts as a critical tool in the battle against those who choose to cheat, even though it presents many athletes with logistical and lifestyle problems.

But of course, during lockdown all of this changed; the drug testers (officially known as Doping Control Officers) were unable to leave their own homes, let alone arrive on the doorstep of an elite athlete, and get close enough to them to take a reliable sample.  For many months, the global testing program of elite athletes has been pretty much on hold, and for those who are less scrupulous, this has created a “license to pill, with athletes knowing that any banned substance in their bodies is unlikely – at least in the short term - to be detected.

The Hope: Train Clean

A blonde girl in an orange vest and blue pants is running in the mountains. In the background, there's a waterfall.

In reality, it is to be hoped that the vast majority of athletes continued to “train clean during lockdown and that they will therefore subsequently “compete clean” when their sport resumes. Sadly though, this won’t always be the case, and there will inevitably be some who will have decided to risk taking banned substances in the knowledge that they are less likely be tested. We also know that taking illegal drugs to boost training often has a performance enhancing effect in a competitive environment long after consumption of the banned substance has ceased – the improved ability to train after taking banned drugs can result in training adaptations that will deliver a distinct performance advantage when competitive sport resumes, even if traces of the substance have long disappeared from the athlete’s body. 

Those that do decide to cheat during lockdown still run a high risk of getting caught – the traces of many banned substances can last for some time, and targeted testing by the anti-doping authorities should result in athletes in high risk sports, or those who may be suspected of doping, soon being asked to provide a sample for analysis.  We may well see a higher incidence of positive drug tests - or anti-doping rule violations – as sport resumes, but in some ways, this should be seen as a good thing, and a sign that cheats cannot prosper

Anti-doping authorities around the world are now faced with the challenge of identifying the very small minority who have chosen to use lockdown as a time to cheat, and it is essential that these cheats are identified and punished if the integrity of sport is to be retained.


Author: John Brewer, Visiting Professor of Sport and Exercise Science, University of Suffolk

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