Doping offenders offered a second chance

After Italian cyclist Marco Pantani tested positive for drugs, his life fell to pieces. Keystone

The world’s first programme to rehabilitate athletes found guilty of doping has been launched by a sports psychologist working in conjunction with Lausanne University.

This content was published on October 29, 2010 - 14:21

Doping has come increasingly under the spotlight in recent years, with the emphasis on punishing drug cheats. A first offence can now incur up to four years’ suspension from the sport in question.

But the Windop programme, which has received funding from the World Anti-Doping Agency, aims to get a better understanding of the mechanisms which lead athletes to take performance-enhancing drugs, and to help offenders get back on their feet.

“The focus has been on repression, which is necessary to establish a clear framework,” sport psychologist Mattia Piffaretti told

“But we have come to realise that there is a gap that needs to be filled in providing support and help to rehabilitate sportsmen and women who have been found guilty of doping.”

Piffaretti, the instigator of the programme, is the head of AC&T Sport Consulting, a private practice in sport psychology in Lausanne.

He believes that just as prisons try to rehabilitate offenders to enable them to return to society, doping offenders should be supported in the same way, to come to terms with what has happened and rebuild their lives.

Psychological help

Ten athletes from Switzerland and neighbouring countries, and representing different disciplines, have agreed to take part in the pilot project, which is scheduled to last one year. During this time they will be completely taken care of, with psychological support given special emphasis.

“To reduce the likelihood of reoffending, the athlete needs to be shown a way to bounce back and to remake himself, in sport, but first and foremost as a human being,” said Piffaretti.

Being punished for doping can be a traumatic occurrence which may lead to very serious psychological problems. He cites the case of Italian cyclist Marco Pantani, an outstanding climber whose career was dogged by allegations of drug abuse and who died at the age of 34 after a cocaine overdose in 2004.

Athletes need to be helped to accept responsibility for their choices and to develop their internal resources and their self-confidence, although the context must be taken into account.

“These athletes are under growing pressure. Sport is often the chance for them, and their families, to escape difficult socio-economic situations. After being punished, they have to rethink the whole of their life,” Piffaretti explained.

Accepting limitations

The support provided by the Windop programme is not limited to psychological help. The participants also get physical training, and learn to understand their metabolism better.

“We want to give them alternatives to doping,” Georges-André Carrel, head of the sport service at Lausanne University told

“This requires total commitment to the project from the athlete. We need the key to his secret garden in order to see exactly when his physical and mental preparation starts to waver.”

Chances of success are improved by correct nutrition, the quality of training and efficient “biomechanics” - learning the right posture and movements to save energy, Carrel explained.

The essential point is that the athlete must learn to accept his limitations.

“Top level sport has become inhuman,” Carrel admitted. “There isn’t enough training any more, there’s far too much competition and the need for recuperation is totally ignored.”

In ultra-professionalised disciplines like hockey, football and cycling, the pressures are such that it is very hard to resist the huge number of temptations.

Even so, Carrel is convinced that “clean” sportsmen can still compete at a very high level. He cites the example of Stéphane Diagana of France, 400 metre hurdles world champion in 1997.

“He knew he could not be in top form more than twice a year. To be at his best in major events, he opted out of participating in many other meetings, and hence lost the chance to earn a lot of money. That was a very courageous choice, and should serve as an example.”

Reducing terms

One strand of the Windop programme is prevention.

“When the participants talk about their experience, this will give young athletes the chance to hear an honest account of the impact a punishment can have and how it can destroy a career,” said Piffaretti.

When Windop has been finalised, he hopes that athletes will be able to get their punishment reduced by taking part in the programme. “That would mean the establishment of a better monitoring mechanism and the introduction of objective measurements able to show that the danger of reoffending has decreased.”

A number of international federations, including the International Cycling Union, are already involved in the pilot project. But although anonymity is guaranteed, it is no easy matter to find volunteers ready to admit their error and to question what they have done.

“There is still a strong code of silence around the issue of doping,” Piffaretti commented.

Windop programme

The pilot programme started at the end of April and runs until May 2011.

The participants live at home, but during course of the year have four meetings in Lausanne with the consultants, whom they can also contact at any time.

The meetings are on an individual basis; group sessions are not involved.

The preventive part of the programme also brings the participants to Lausanne, where they talk about their experiences with young athletes.

The programme will be modified in the light of the feedback received from the participants.

The definitive programme is expected to be fuller. It will also be decentralised, since the participants come from quite a wide area, and it is impractical to concentrate them in Lausanne.

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Wada was established on November 10, 1999 in Lausanne to promote and coordinate the fight against doping in sport internationally.

The agency's headquarters are located in Montreal, Canada.

Four regional offices in Lausanne, Tokyo, Cape Town and Montevideo facilitate the agency's work around the globe.

The agency was set up as a foundation under the initiative of the IOC with the support and participation of intergovernmental organisations, governments, public authorities and other public and private bodies fighting against doping in sport.

Wada coordinates the development and implementation of the world anti-doping code, the document harmonising anti-doping policies in all sports and all countries. Some 600 sports organisations have signed up to the new code.

The code first came into force in 2004, and was amended in 2009.

More than 145 governments have ratified the International Convention against Doping in Sport, the legal tool prepared and adopted to harmonise laws and regulations with the world Anti-doping code.

The agency focuses on seven areas: code compliance monitoring; cooperation with law enforcement, science and medicine; anti-doping coordination (ADAMS); anti-doping development; education and athlete outreach.

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