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It is illegal in most sports to take any of a list of banned performance-enhancing substances. There are governing bodies across sport to enforce these restrictions.

If an athlete were to honestly believe that they were taking such a substance, surreptitiously and in order to obtain an unfair advantage, but no such substance was present -- for example because an unscrupulous trainer believed the placebo effect would give them an advantage, or perhaps because their dealer is crooked -- would this fall foul of the regulations?

The reason I ask is that the violations which you here about concern the fact of consumption not the intent, which is clearly sufficient to sanction an athlete. Is this because intent doesn't enter into the fact of the offence, or because either the fact or the intent are sufficient?

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  • What particular governing bodies/jurisdictions are you referring to? There's no "the regulations".
    – Sneftel
    Mar 15 at 11:10
  • 4
    And... a breach of said regulations may not be "illegal"
    – Rick
    Mar 15 at 11:40
  • Breach of these regulations usually boils down to breach of a contract (the contract between the athlete and the competition curator). A lot of these substances have legitimate use outside of sports.
    – fraxinus
    Mar 16 at 13:36
  • @Rick yes, sorry, illegal was a sloppy word to use. I didn't mean to imply it was necessarily a criminal matter, but I think breach of contract, etc, typical contract clauses, etc, can be classed as a matter of law.
    – Dannie
    Mar 17 at 9:45
  • Sort of a parallel to asking if it's legal to serve non-alcoholic beer or wine to minors, while convincing them that it is in fact alcoholic. I have actually seen people get placebo-drunk this way, convinced they'd had alcohol when they really hadn't. Mar 17 at 14:49

3 Answers 3

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In the it is a breach of the 2021 UK Anti-Doping Rules for an athlete to have a "Prohibited Substance or its Metabolites or Markers" in their sample. No mention is made, as far as I can see, that the intent to use a placebo as described by the OP would fall foul of these Rules.

The only relevant mention of intent seems to be when the substances etc are present:

It is each Athlete’s personal duty to ensure that no Prohibited Substance enters their body. An Athlete is responsible for any Prohibited Substance or any of its Metabolites or Markers found to be present in their Sample. Accordingly, it is not necessary to demonstrate intent, Fault, negligence or knowing Use on the Athlete’s part in order to establish an Article 2.1 Anti-Doping Rule Violation; nor is the Athlete's lack of intent, Fault, negligence or knowledge a valid defence to an assertion that an Article 2.1 Anti-Doping Rule Violation has been committed.

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  • Relevant: gov.uk/government/consultations/….
    – Tim
    Mar 16 at 9:35
  • 2
    So getting a prohibited substance somehow into the diet of a competitor would actually be 'possible', given 'lack of intent' and 'lack of knowledge' not being a defence 🤔 . Mar 16 at 12:37
  • 3
    @DavidMulder While it sounds like that would get the competitor in trouble, wouldn't that also get you in trouble for poisoning or something? Mar 16 at 17:15
  • 5
    @gnasher729 If performance-enhancing drugs were good for you and didn't have negative effects, they wouldn't be banned. The reason they are banned is because they can have negative effects, and banning them means that athletes don't have to suffer those negative effects in order to be competitive.
    – kaya3
    Mar 17 at 4:56
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    @gnasher729 even if the substance in question is arguably completely harmless and beneficial and thus hard to define as poisoning, causing it to be administered to a subject without consent is almost certainly some form of battery. This is tangential to the question, though, which is asking about almost the exactly opposite scenario.
    – Will
    Mar 17 at 11:46
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Not a full answer, but it should be noted that in the United States (and, I suspect, many other jurisdictions), even if the athlete didn’t manage to use such substances they could be charged with conspiring to consume such substances. This would require:

  • Intent to violate anti-doping laws
  • Scheming with another person (drug dealer, personal trainer, etc.) to violate those laws
  • An actual, material action taken in furtherance of that scheme

A skilled prosecutor may be able to argue that attempting to acquire PEDs, even if the athlete is unsuccessful, constitutes a material step towards violating anti-doping laws and thus the athlete is guilty of conspiracy.

Peter points out that my answer should include possible laws the conspiracy case could cover. Here is a (non exhaustive) list:

  • Possession of/Possession with intent to distribute anabolic steroids without a prescription
  • Sale of anabolic steroids without a prescription
  • Forgery of a medical document
  • Fraud

The athlete and provider of steroids may also be in violation of any number of local statutes regarding drug possession, fraud, and forgery. Moreover, if the sport is a contact sport such as boxing or MMA, the athlete may face criminal and/or civil charges for injuries inflicted on opponents.

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  • 6
    But anti-doping rules aren't government laws, they're rules imposed by sporting bodies like the IOC / WADA, or national sporting bodies. So is conspiracy to violate them a criminal offense? How is that different from hatching plans to cheat at your next D&D game with friends? (Obviously different in several ways, especially in sports where prize money is at stake at competitions. So maybe a better example would be a major-league baseball team using a telescope to steal / relay signs from the opposing team's catcher. I don't think that's criminal, just against the game's rules.) Mar 15 at 19:52
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    @PeterCordes Professional sport is not just a game with rules but an activity fulfilling numerous commerical contracts. Breaking the rules of the game when they are stipulated as part of one of these contracts, and doing so dishonestly for financial gain, can easily end up amounting to fraud.
    – Will
    Mar 17 at 11:52
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Let's look at the WADA Code which many sport governing bodies have adopted. This has 11 categories of anti-doping rule violations. The first 2 could be relevant to your question.

The first "2.1 Presence of a Prohibited Substance or its Metabolites or Markers in an Athlete’s Sample" would clearly not apply as no prohibited substance would have been taken.

The second "2.2 Use or Attempted Use by an Athlete of a Prohibited Substance or a Prohibited Method" is more interesting. The second paragraph of this states -

2.2.2 The success or failure of the Use or Attempted Use of a Prohibited Substance or Prohibited Method is not material. It is sufficient that the Prohibited Substance or Prohibited Method was Used or Attempted to be Used for an anti-doping rule violation to be committed

In your scenario, I would consider the athlete to have attempted to use a prohibited substance albeit unsuccessfully. Hence, I believe that this would still a doping rule violation.

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    I can't agree with that whatsoever. A placebo has no influence on the performance at all. It is not a prohibited substance. So intentionally trying to take a placebo and succeding should be no problem.
    – gnasher729
    Mar 16 at 19:17
  • 2
    @gnasher729 The question says that the athlete doesn't know it's a placebo but thinks it is a performance enhancing substance and is taking it to try to gain a performance advantage.
    – Ian Cook
    Mar 16 at 20:15
  • I've asked a separate question about the case where an athlete does knows it a placebo.
    – Ian Cook
    Mar 16 at 20:16
  • 2
    If the athlete knows it's a placebo, is it still a placebo?
    – justhalf
    Mar 17 at 10:06
  • 1
    @justhalf - Yeah... weirdly, placebos still work even if you know they're a placebo, just a bit less reliably Mar 17 at 16:04

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