The Straight Dope on Fair Play in Sport

I wrote an editorial, which is featured in the July/August issue of Anthropology News (AN). The full text is available via the AN website. A preview is below.

The Straight Dope on Regulating Fair Play in Sport

Why do so many athletes seem to be cheating? Kathryn Henne delves into the rules surrounding doping and gender in sport.

Anxieties around cheating in sport seem to be everywhere. Even the golden girl of professional tennis, Maria Sharapova, has joined the growing list of elite athletes whose reputations have been tarnished by performance-enhancing drug use. In March, Sharapova admitted to testing positive for meldonium, a substance she has been taking since 2006 and that has only been banned since January. She attributed her failed test to a mistake, accepting responsibility for her error, but denied any intention of cheating. Despite this assertion, Sharapova is subject to a two-year ban from sport, which she plans to appeal.

Although some fans, commentators, and competitors, including Serena Williams, have supported Sharapova, not everyone has been sympathetic. The former President of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), Dick Pound, described the situation as “reckless beyond description,” acknowledging that the “US$30 million business” built on Sharapova’s brand depends on her “staying eligible to play tennis.” No doubt Pound is also sceptical after leading an independent commission into Russian athletics: last year, it yielded findings of systematic doping and cover-ups as well as state complicity. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the governing body for world athletics, has since endured a full-blown scandal following additional revelations of widespread doping and corruption within the organization.

In sum, everyone in sport seems to be cheating—or are at least suspected of doing so. But, how did we get to this point? Reflecting on my years of ethnographic fieldwork on regulations in global sport, I would argue that the answer is linked to the rules themselves.