The Memo: Lifting the lid on doping and performance-enhancing drug use in sport

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“You could say it was a bad choice of hero, but his downfall led to an interest in these kinds of cases that has stayed with me.” – Lifting the lid on doping and performance-enhancing drug use in sport.

Isaac Hickford – 16 January 2023

“Like he was for a lot of people, Lance Armstrong had been a hero of mine,” Alastair Campbell, sports law and arbitration partner at Level tells us. Diagnosed with stage three testicular cancer aged 25, Armstrong had recovered to win seven consecutive Tour de France titles. In doing so, he captured the imagination of the sporting public in a way that few athletes ever had. Yet by 2012, he was stripped of all seven Tour victories and banned from competitive cycling for life by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). “You could say it was a bad choice of hero,” Campbell quips, but his downfall led to an interest in these kinds of cases that has stayed with me.”

Doping – the use of substances to effect athletic performance - is not a crime in the UK, but it is something that the governing bodies of most sports regulate against: “These regulations are a contract,” Oliver Harland, managing associate at sports firm Northridge Law explains, “if you’re an athlete, you agree to be bound by sporting regulations as the basis upon which you are allowed to participate in that sport. So, when we talk about doping, we are usually talking about a contractual / regulatory offense, rather than a criminal one.” The regulatory framework of different sports will cover a whole suite of activities related to doping, even in cases where an athlete has passed an anti-doping test, all as part of a broader goal of prohibiting activities that facilitate it: “That is what happens if you evade or refuse sample collection, if you tamper with a sample, if you possess or traffic prohibited substances, or associate with others who have committed doping offences.”

As Campbell highlights however, this doesn’t mean the police won’t be interested in situations where an athlete is guilty of doping: “Lots of the substances on the prohibited list, like steroids, are regulated by the Misuse of Drugs Acts 1971, and so although most possession offenses won't be prosecuted, something like the supply of steroids is a criminal offense that is likely to interest the police.”

In many cases, national governing bodies regulate the use of performance-enhancing drugs through a system developed under the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) – designed to ensure consistent procedures and sanctions across different sports: “It’s a system that gives a degree of uniformity to anti-doping regulation around the world, and it imposes pretty severe sanctions for anti-doping rule violations” Campbell tells us. So, where do lawyers enter the picture? The WADA code itself - which is applied across all the Olympic sports, among others - is drafted by lawyers, “in consultation with sports’ stakeholders including athletes, sports’ governing bodies, anti-doping organisations, and the scientific community” Harland adds. In fact, lawyers play a significant part in drafting the regulations that govern participation across sports in the UK. But legal professionals also play a role in cases where an athlete is found to be in violation of the regulations they help form.

Most governing bodies have their own tribunals or disciplinary panels, which enforce that particular sport’s rules around anti-doping. While they are not courts of law, they serve as a dispute resolution forum where matters directly relating to an athletes conduct can be dealt with quickly. Where an athlete is brought before a sporting tribunal in doping cases, lawyers will work on both sides, “either acting for the prosecuting authority (usually the relevant sports’ governing body or anti-doping organisation), or in defence of the athlete or other individual who has been charged with a breach of anti-doping rules” Harland explains. For Alastair Campbell, the role of a lawyer in these cases is similar to that in any other dispute, whether it's ensuring your client understands the rules or providing the best evidence available: “in anti-doping cases, this involves understanding and applying often quite difficult scientific expert evidence around subjects like supplement contamination or pharmacokinetics, and ultimately packaging that evidence and presenting it to a tribunal in a way that's persuasive.”

So, what do prospective sports lawyers need if they want to get involved in these sorts of cases? For Alastair Campbell, who spent 10 years working in investment and commercial disputes before making the switch to sports law, there are a number of specialisms that have a huge amount of overlap: “You could be an employment lawyer, you could be into privacy and defamation, you could be a disputes lawyer, a media lawyer, a commercial lawyer, and you’ll have a bank of skills that makes you marketable to firms practicing in sports if that’s something that interests you.” This is something Harland echoes: “To be a good sports lawyer you need to be a good lawyer. But being a good lawyer and a fan of sport is not enough. You need to have a keen interest in the legal issues that affect sport, and an understanding of how sport works as a business.”

The good news is that it’s always best to steer into the topics that interest you most: “Think about topics that interest you – for example, how FIFA’s new agents regulations will affect player transfers in football – and learn as much as you can about them,” Harland advises. After all, “these are the kind of topics you're going to be dealing with on a day-to-day basis.”


Alastair Campbell is a disputes partner at Level law with a particular focus on sports law and arbitration. Alastair specialises in commercial disputes, disciplinary and regulatory work, and regularly appears as advocate before disciplinary panels and tribunals.

Oliver Harland is a managing associate at specialist sports firm Northridge law, focusing on contentious regulatory matters for sport’s governing bodies. Oliver also has a master’s degree (LLM) in Sports Law and Practice.