Anti-Doping and the AFL: an issue close to our hearts

The cycling fraternity love to stare down their collective noses at the anti-doping methods of other sports.  It’s as if cycling’s supposed salvation from a terrible history of doping is a badge of honour; a moral ivory tower from which to sneer at ‘lesser’ sports.

This is both reasonable and hypocritical in equal parts; the former because cycling’s testing and enforcement is now world’s best and the latter because our anti-doping excellence is the by-product of systemic cultural and institutional dishonesty.

With that caveat in mind, I will attempt to unpack the issues contained in the Jobe Watson/AFL saga.


To begin, we must refrain from making this an AFL-centric story.  The issue is simply athlete vs. anti-doping code, and the rule of law should apply to all signatory sports or none.  Including the AFL clouds the issue and evokes strong tribal protectionism.

Moving on to the WADA code, the (supposedly) contentious issue in the Watson case is strict liability.  This means the athlete is liable for the substances in their body.  There is no wriggle room on this point and the AFL Anti-Doping Code is totally WADA-compliant in this area.  So, if an athlete under the code (Watson) is found to have taken a banned substance (as AOD9604 clearly was and remains) then an anti-doping rule violation has occurred.  The principle of strict liability has been consistently upheld in the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and intent or awareness are wholly irrelevant for this part of the process.

Further downstream, the issue of intent and reliance on expert advice become relevant. Under article 10 of the code, the athlete’s subsequent sanction may be reduced or suspended if they can prove that they were ‘not at fault or at significant fault’ and ‘did not intend to enhance his or her sporting performance.’

Considering Watson signed a consent form detailing the name of the drug, a 30 second Google search would have alerted him to the illegality of taking AOD9604.  Google cache reveals a wealth of information on AOD was publicly available during the period in question, especially on bodybuilding forums where its mechanisms and effects were clearly spelled out.

Watson could have also called the ASADA anonymous information hotline for advice, visited the ASADA website or searched the numerous banned substance databases available on the internet.  Even if he did so and found nothing he is not excused; an absence of information indicates the substance is not approved for therapeutic use and is automatically prohibited.

It is subsequently difficult to believe that Watson made a reasonable effort to abide by the WADA code.  It is also clear that he was seeking a performance enhancing benefit from AOD that was not available to his rivals.

I accept that we should trust doctors.  I can also entertain the thought that Watson did not cheat intentionally.  However, I cannot accept that a professional athlete wouldn’t be interested enough in the drugs injected into their body to Google what they are and how they work.  I also don’t believe a rational actor would behave in this way; if my ability to pay a mortgage relied on conforming to the WADA code, and the likelihood of my getting caught exceeded the payoff of cheating, I would make it my absolute priority to conform.

To paraphrase the great Aaron Sorkin; ‘If he didn’t know, then he’s criminally negligent. If he did, then he’s simply criminal.”



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