Doping, Surveillance and Radical Transparency in Sport

Surveillance studies people tend not to look at sport very much. Sure, sports mega-events and the kinds of security crackdowns and surveillance surges that occur around them are an object of research, but sport itself, less so.

This is interesting because the bodies of athletes are amongst the most closely monitored and at the same time, contested sites that one could imagine, none more so than professional cycling. Professional cycling may be the most difficult sport on the planet and not surprisingly it has acquired a bad reputation for the prevalence of cheating, particularly in the area of doping. The reputation is in some ways unfair as cycling also has some of the most onerous regulations governing everything from the movements of the riders – the so-called ‘whereabouts rule’, where riders must be available for testing at all times, so must tell doping testers where they are going to be and be there – to bodily function, with top level cyclists now required to have a ‘biological passport’ which establishes baseline values for levels of various aspects of blood and so on, so that anything which alters these values in an unusual way can be taken as prima facie evidence of doping.

However, there has been a reaction from many cyclists against the increasingly intrusive surveillance regime. Privacy has been cited (see for example the challenge by Kazahk rider, Andrey Kashechkin to be his positive test for an illegal blood transfusion), as well as the riders’ right to a good night’s sleep (testers now often arrive in the early hours of the morning). Critics have been less sympathetic with accusations of a code of ‘omerta’ towards anyone who tells the truth about doping in cycling, and riders generally failing to understand the seriousness of cheating.

In opposition to the complaints, a growing number of top teams and riders have been taking the initiative and arguing not against the surveillance regime but embracing it even more fully than the UCI, the sport’s governing body or WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency. One example is British rider, Bradley Wiggins. He’s an ex-Olympic track cycling champion who has previously finished 4th in the Tour de France, generally acknowledged as the pinnacle of the sport. That result was a surprise to everyone as Wiggins had never really shown such prowess on the road, and there were mutterings about doping. What Wiggins did was radical and even more startling: a rider who has always insisted that he has ridden clean, he published his biological passport readings for the whole period of the Tour and more.

Now he is taking this ‘radical transparency’ stance further and arguing that all biological passport data for all riders should be made available on the Internet. He argues that this would give both individual riders and the sport, credibility, and stop the rumour mill and the often unfounded allegations around particular performances, as well as shaming those who really are trying to get away with doping. Of course it does damage privacy, but in this case, the virtues of privacy and very much less clear than they might be in other domains. Of course there is also a big difference between such transparency being a voluntary gesture and a requirement.

Helmet cams – self-protection or surveillance?

I am a cyclist, and for a while now I have been thinking about the increasing numbers of my fellow cyclists in the UK who are filming their everyday rides to work, and often posting the results online on sites like youtube. This has become more obvious as something particular since i have moved to Canada where very few cyclists seem to do this. There are more and more discussions on online cycling forums and even dedicated areas for swapping videos, tips and camera stories. This practice seems to have started amongst mountain-bikers and other extreme sports enthusiasts, but the use of handlebar or helmet-mounted cameras on ordinary commuting rides has a very different purpose. For most it appears to originate in a desire for self-protection. Cyclists are more aware than most of bad driving and how vulnerable you can feel when people cocooned in large mobile chunks of metal and glass are doing stupid things around you at high speed.

But as a surveillance studies specialist as well as a cyclist, I have more mixed feelings. We’ve been studying the way in which surveillance has come to be perhaps the primary way in which the state organises itself, and how crucial it as become to capital, to the organisation of labour and materials. We have also identified the way in which increasingly ubiquitous surveillance affects social relations, how it is implicated both as a reaction to, and as a driver of, the decline of social assurance, of trust. We’ve talked about the dehumanising effects of surveillance: the loss of dignity, privacy, of how memory and the mollifying effects of forgetting are replaced by constant recording. We have predicted the decreasing size and cost of surveillance devices, of their growing mobility, independence and even ‘democratization’ (or at least wider spread), and seen those predictions happen at even greater speed than most had anticipated.

The surveillance society has spawned reactions: there has been anti-surveillance (smashing of cameras, protests, mapping of paths of least surveillance etc.), situationalism and play, there has been ‘sousveillance’ with activists turning the gaze back on the watchers, and there has been guerilla and vigilante surveillance, with groups citizens using the increasingly cheap surveillance equipment for their own personal and political ends from the Texas Minutemen watching the US border for illegal immigrants to my cyclist friends.

My real concern, I suppose, is whether the use of surveillance by ordinary people is some kind of empowering self-protection, or whether it is simply another step further into a surveillance society. The answer, I think, is that it is both. Certainly the cyclists don’t see it as the latter, but people, even the most intelligent, rarely see themselves as part of a trend that many would regard as negative. Some do recognise the connection but have no problem with it. The same ‘nothing to hide. nothing to fear’ rhetoric is trotted out, but usually by people who are too naive to understand the implications of what they are saying, too self-centered to realise that it isn’t just about them, or too boring to be able to even imagine what they might ever do anything interesting enough to come to the attention of anyone watching. The use of helmet cams does however, have an in inherent and implied politics: it does make it very difficult to construct any coherent politics of state CCTV if you are yourself involved in surveillance on an everyday basis. How can you complain about the number of cameras in your high street, when you make videos of drivers who have annoyed you and put them online?

I’ll be posting more about this as I think of it.