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Wasting money on sport? Australian government policy and the sport of powerlifting

Roar Guru
13th February, 2015
1
1236 Reads

I would like to think that taxes are utilised effectively, including when it comes to promoting drug free sport.

In the case of powerlifting, however, a sport where individuals (including myself) test their absolute strength through a squat, bench press and deadlift, I argue that Australian government policy has largely wasted considerable public resources.

This is despite the Australian Sports Commission (ASC) recognising Powerlifting Australia (PA) as the affiliate of the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) and as the National Sporting Organisation (NSO) ‘responsible for the governance of the sport’ (Email from ASC 19 August 2013), with a hope the sport would become unified in time with all lifters subject to drug testing.

By 2015, however, Australian powerlifting remains equally divided between lifters subject to testing by the Australian Sport Anti-Doping Agency (ASADA) and those who are not; substantial public funds continue to go to PA with its small membership, perhaps representing half of Australian powerlifters; and the ASC expresses little interest in the factors dividing the sport.

While PA would not provide details of its membership numbers, nor would the ASC on the basis it ‘is organisation owned data’ (Email from ASC 19 August 2013), Wilks (PA CEO) indicated in the IPF 2013 annual report that Australia has around 500 lifters in line with 59 tests being conducted for 2012. The number of PA lifters may have grown since.

Although PA has not received direct public funding since 2004-05, and ASADA could not quantify costs concerning drug testing ‘for reasons of program integrity’ (Email Sept 18, 2013), the cost of public funded tests for PA is substantial.

By taking account of ASADA’s 2011-12 revenue of $14.78 million and 7196 tests conducted for that year, this calculates to around $2,500 per test and $1,290,000 for the 2008-2013 period given that Australia conducted 516 tests on powerlifters over six years.

Despite considerable public resources being directed to a minor sport, however, you would be wrong to think that the ASC has interest in how powerlifting is faring, and whether PA was achieving a number of policy aims.

First, the ASC is not ‘aware of any research on the state of Australian powerlifting’ (Email from ASC 19 August 2013), despite considerable public resources being involved.

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Second, the Australian government supports an international federation where testing amongst national affiliates is hardly standardised or extensive, albeit it leads the powerlifting world by a long way. Of the 53 national IPF affiliates that reported drug testing during the 2008-2013 period, most conducted fewer tests than Australia which averaged 57 in-competition-tests (ICT) and 29 out-of-competition (OCT) per year for its small number of lifters.

Of the most important OCT testing, which gives lifters no warning of upcoming tests given that mere ICT can easily be anticipated in terms of drug clearance rates, just 17 nations had an average 5+ tests per year, 12 averaged 10+ tests per year, 11 averaged 20+ per year, and just 7 nations exceeded the Australian average of 29 per year (Sweden, Russia, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Belgium and Ukraine).

The US affiliate of the IPF does not even adhere to the IPF request that drug testing be conducted by World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) accredited laboratories. In 2013, only 16 USAPowerlifting (UASAPL) drug tests were WADA accredited, with a USAPL National Governing Body Meeting acknowledging that several athletes who tested positive in WADA laboratories escaped detection via Quest and Redwood laboratory testing. 2013 USAPL testing data also indicates that only 35 of the 894 tests conducted in 2013 were OCT, representing less than 4 per cent of total tests.

Of the five champion US lifters invited to compete in PA competitions in recent years, they collectively faced just two OCT by the USAPL and the IPF during 2012 and 2013, although 18 ICT were conducted.

Third, the IPF has a high rate of positive tests, in line with WADA finding a 4 per cent positive test rate for non-Olympic sports (including powerlifting) in 2012, compared to just 1.5 per cent for Olympic sports. During 2012, the IPF had a positive test result of 4.6 per cent for the total 2218 tests it conducted.

This included a 7.2 per cent for elite lifters, involving 275 ICT and 57 OCT, and 4.1 per cent from the 1886 tests conducted by national IPF affiliates.

Fourth, in contrast to Australia, the IPF affiliates of the US, Great Britain and Canada get no government assistance for drug testing with members funding the cost, even though their annual membership costs are lower than for PA members.

Fifth, the ASC appears to have no interest in PA’s failure to unite the sport or the various reasons why the sport remains divided, although the ASC has indicated that one of the reasons for PA losing direct funding from 2005-06 was low participation numbers and a low profile within the Australian community (Email from ASC 19 August 2013).

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When I indicated complaints were being made about PA administration by members, as posted on Facebook, the ASC noted it ‘is not a regulatory body’ (Email from ASC 19 August 2013). After inquiring further, the ASC then stated that it ‘would seek the complainant’s permission before contacting the national sporting organisation about any alleged case’ (Email from ASC 29 August 2013).

However, I did not provide any information. I remained concerned about doing so given the ASC’s previous breach of the Federal Privacy Act when a complaint made in 2001 was passed on to Wilks with the email used to substantiate many allegations by Wilks in a defamation case.

With other matters, there are many reasons why lifters choose to lift in other federations, despite Wilks declaring in 2010 that athletes choosing to be uninvolved in drug-tested competition have ensured their ‘separation from the Australian and world sporting mainstream’. As suggested by the president of GPC Australia, Markos Markopoulos, whose federation reached 630 members as of February 2015 after starting out in 2012, having a say in the direction of the federation was a major reason why many lifters had joined GPC with its annual general meeting asking members to contribute and vote on all major decisions (Email from GPC 26 July 2013). I also joined GPC in January 2015 after weighing up the strength and weaknesses of different federations.

As it stands, section 62 of the PA constitution states that ‘no Member has any right of inspection of any accounting or other records of the Company except as conferred by the Act or authorised by the Board or by a resolution passed at a general meeting’. This is despite the ASC stating that

In an organisation owned by members and which receives substantial public funding, both members and taxpayers have a right to know how the organisation spends its money and therefore to provide input into the effectiveness of expenditure. NSOs should therefore fully disclose administration expenses for the organisation on a gross basis before any allocation of such expenses across functional activities within the NSO.

This should include full transparency on compensation and associated expenses of the top five staff members in the sport. This will enable stakeholders to understand the level of administration expenditure in the sport and the efficiency of the NSO in undertaking its operations’.

Sixth, despite the ASC encouraging best practice from its sporting organisations, PA lags behind other IPF national affiliates with regard to a number of measures with regard to transparency. PA’s website has no information of minutes of general meetings or financial statements by May 2014 in contrast to IPF affiliates in the USA, GB and Canada.

With regard to membership numbers, which PA chooses not to disclose, the Canadian Powerlifting Union (CPU) indicates that membership increased each year from 556 in 2008 to reach 1309 in 2013, while USAPL’s level rose from around 3400 in 2006 to near 4500 by 2011.

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With regard to testing, the USAPL and the CPU discloses every test conducted, including the name of the individual and date.

Seventh, the ASC could learn from approaches for drug testing around the world, or why other strategies may prove more effective. For example, the CPU conducts an OCT Pool for up to 18 months after membership expiry in accordance with the Canadian Anti-Doping Program.

Anti Doping Denmark can also enter into anti-doping agreements with fitness centres and other organisations with legislation requiring Danish gyms to display a happy or grumpy smiley to indicate anti-doping compliance, although recent research of Internet forums indicates that Danes may be using up to 50 such venues with police not seeing them as a high priority.

At the very least, drawing on the Danish example, the ASC could display information on its website about which Australian sporting federations are subject to a drug testing program or policy, given that there are four Australian powerlifting federations as of 2015, including the Australian Drug Free Powerlifting Federation which pays for its own WADA testing.

With ASADA indicating that it ‘can only investigate possible violations of the anti-doping rules in relation to athletes and support persons who come under a Code compliant anti-doping policy’ (Email Sept 18, 2013), you would think that the Australian government would consider other strategies to promote drug free sport, particularly for powerlifting. For example, many promote the virtue of education to inform sportspeople about the health risks of banned performance enhancing drugs.

Perhaps the ASC could actually communicate with other federations to discuss just which federations are interested in promoting drug free sport rather than simply ignoring them.

The ASC’s lack of interest in the various factors that divide Australian powerlifting is surprising. After all, the Australian Public Service Commission indicates that issues which are ‘highly resistant to resolution’ where there is ‘no quick fixes and simple solutions’, require a need to grasp ‘the big picture, including the interrelationships among the full range of causal factors underlying them’.

Such so-called ‘wicked problems’ ‘require innovative, comprehensive solutions that can be modified in the light of experience and on-the-ground feedback’. And, because ‘disagreement among stakeholders often reflects the different emphasis they place on the various causal factors’, ‘successfully addressing wicked policy problems usually involves a range of coordinated and interrelated responses, given their multi-causal nature’; and ‘often involves trade-offs between conflicting goals’.

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Perhaps I am asking too much, as powerful players too often fail to match their rhetoric. It appears that the Australian government, via substantial resources for drug testing alone, is happy to assist the federation seeking IOC accreditation, rather than improving its strategy about how best to deal with a sport with many federations.

In the case of powerlifting, the government should stop funding a sport with few participants, or lift its game and actually try to promote a more effective strategy if the policy goal is to encourage drug free powerlifting given near 25 years of policy failure.

This article is a summary of Chris Lewis, ‘Another sports drug-testing failure: Australian government policy and powerlifting’, International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics