The usual rules — gravity, biology, fluid dynamics — don’t seem to apply to great athletes. And the usual definition of personhood may not either. By subjecting athletes to relentless testing, sportocrats objectify them in a way that, in any other context, would be considered unacceptable. But we allow it because we fetishize fairness and want it to be the default setting for every game. But, as Australian National University sociologist Kathryn Henne points out, that isn’t how humanity works.

Henne, author of Testing For Athlete Citizenship, has built a career analyzing the ways doping policies are created and implemented. She’s concluded that the only thing wrong with the process is that it doesn’t make any sense at all to treat people that way. The need for anti-doping testing, the former competitive athlete says, has made us lose sight of the fact that athletes are human. Henne talked to Inverse about the trauma of the drug testing process, the opportunities it creates for veiled racism and sexism, and how it feels to have your human biology questioned.

South African track and field star Caster Semenya was subjected to gender testing in 2009 by the IAAF.
South African track and field star Caster Semenya was subjected to gender testing in 2009 by the IAAF.

What’s the most egregious violation of personal rights that doping policies permit these days?

A lot of the athletes, while they believe they need some form of regulation around performance enhancing drugs, have experienced that max surveillance can be really problematic for their everyday lives. They don’t intend to take banned substances, and some of the products that are out there may have banned substances in them so they obviously want to help navigate that. But having to report their whereabouts every day of the year, having people show up at their doorstep for out-of-competition testing while in the middle of something, or with their family or a very early time of day, or even right after competition — sometimes, when their adrenaline is just through the roof! They find it to be quite an infringement of their everyday lives.

How does the drug testing process itself infringe on personal rights?

The drug testing process itself can be really traumatic in the beginning. Your body has to be visible — someone has to actually watch you give a sample. That requires removing clothing. That requires being exposed and being observed — by someone usually of the same gender, but it still can really be a traumatic process. A lot of female athletes are really up front about this; they aren’t prepared for what it is supposed to be like. They go into the situation cold and they’re like, ‘Whoa I was mentally not prepared to do that.’

Are athletes expected to accept this as a normal part of their careers?

It’s a condition of participation. Contractually, to participate, you have to agree to these anti-doping terms or you basically agree not to participate. It’s technically a contract, but the contract is written in a way that participation is contingent on it. A lot of athletes just learn to accept it.

Do the tests themselves ever call an athlete’s human biology into question?

The issue that’s had a lot of coverage is the hyper androgen regulations with regards to women’s sports. Basically, those rules say that people who are competing in women’s sport can’t have [anything past a] certain threshold of testosterone in their bodies. If you’re above that level you’re going to become suspect and in order to compete you’re going to have to comply with this regulation. Those [rules] have been suspended for two years, but there’s still incredible debates about it. To have someone have to modify their biology is a bit problematic, especially when we think of the Olympics as a celebration of a natural athlete.

But they’ve recognized that there’s a spectrum; there’s not a clear dividing area that a scientific test can identify. There’s enough evidence now to see that testosterone levels with men and women can overlap, and so I think it’ll be interesting to see what happens. I don’t think those regulations will really come back.

Male athletes, like Michael Phelps, are also subject to androgen testing but are less likely than women to have their gender questioned as a result.
Male athletes, like Michael Phelps, are also subject to androgen testing but are less likely than women to have their gender questioned as a result.

Have doping policies created opportunities for veiled racism?

I think you can make that argument. If we look at older iterations of testing, certainly women from Communist bloc countries were profiled in ways that Western women were not. If you look at the history of the Olympics in particular, it’s really founded on some really older ideological ideas around purity and naturalness in sports — and I mean very antiquated ideas. At the foundation of the Olympics, certain levels of training were deemed to be unfair, so manual laborers were viewed to have an inherent advantage, and that was really used to justify a really clear class divide. The stigma around professional sport versus amateur sport were all rooted around these class differences. And of course, we’re engendering colonial ideologies as well. I don’t know if it’s a conspiracy per se, but we still see the IOC and other organizations really struggling as society [develops] more liberal ideas around gender and physical ability.

If we can identify the problems with doping policy, what’s stopping us from making rules that better respect human rights?

In the move to tighten the rules and create a stronger international set of guidelines and standardized practices, the policymakers have lost sight of including athletes in the development of regulation.

It seems to me that the people who are most victimized by these holes in the system are the athletes themselves.

Absolutely. But it’s been really interesting to see some athletes in the Games really coming out against people that have had, in some cases, really minor infractions. Saying they don’t want to have anything to do with them or condemning their own teammates. There’s no doubt that there are quite a few athletes that really believe that it’s necessary to have a doping-free sport. And I don’t think that they always see themselves as victims.

What would a better system look like?

I would certainly state that we need some kind of drug regulation in sports, and I mean that very broadly. Athletes aren’t just using performance-enhancing drugs, a lot of them are using recreational drugs to cope with stress. The health challenges are formidable. The abuse of painkillers that I’ve seen in athletes I’ve interviewed is incredible. I really think that we have to have a fundamental conversation [acknowledging that] elite sport is a really stressful and difficult job both mentally and physically. How do we create a system that’s responsive to athletes, given that, in a lot of ways, they are commodities and they understand that better than most people and they’re still willing to do it? They’re still willing to put their bodies at risk like that. Recognizing that, how do we then help them cope with those stresses? That’s where I would kind of push the regulatory focus.

So, at the end of the day, what we have to do is to remember to treat athletes like humans.

It’s interesting that you say that because all of the regulations are really about ensuring there’s still that human element. We don’t want them doped up on all these unnatural things because we want to preserve that human element, but in doing so we really lost sight of what they need as people.

Photos via Getty Images / Ian Walton, Getty Images / Al Bello, Getty Images / Jim Rogash

Yasmin is a writer and former biologist living in New York. A Toronto girl at heart, her writing also appears in The Last Magazine and SciArt in America. You might recognize her as a past host of Scientific American's YouTube series.