It is two years since David Howman, the World Anti-Doping Agency director general, told the Guardian that the tentacles of organised crime and a culture of cheating were now burrowed so deep into sport that doping was too big an issue for it to deal with on its own. In the same interview he worried that the International Association of Athletics Federations – among others – was poised to follow the world cycling governing body, the UCI, in being eaten from the inside by a serious, systemic culture of cheating among its members.
On both points, he is in danger of being proved depressingly right. The IAAF, in Beijing to elect a new president before the world championships, has spiralled into crisis over a complex and multilayered doping problem decades in the making. The IAAF’s own 2011 research put the number of cheating athletes at 14% across the board and in some events much higher.
At present, between 1% and 2% of doping cheats are caught by testing. It was that same research that was the genesis of the list leaked to the German broadcaster ARD and the Sunday Times by a concerned insider that suggested a third of medals at the Olympics and world championships in endurance events between 2001 and 2012 were won by athletes with suspicious blood values.
Rather than attacking the messenger and starting legal proceedings, the IAAF might also wonder why insiders have become so desperate that they have resorted to leaking confidential information as a cry for help. See also the anonymous IAAF anti-doping official who told ARD last weekend that it was often hard to follow up on suspicious tests for logistical and resourcing reasons.
To much of the outside world, the battle against anti-doping becomes interesting only when someone is caught. The alphabet soup of agencies that prosecute the fight against doping are a sometimes-confusing mass of overlapping contradictions. The IAAF has a point when it wonders, like the cycling fraternity before it, why other sports aren’t also feeling the heat. And the IAAF’s arguments – that it was among the first to introduce biological passports, that it has ramped up out-of-competition testing, that it chases drug cheats with more vigour than some other sports, that it is belatedly investing in more complex testing methods – hold some water.
But the numbers don’t lie. The IAAF has just 10 anti-doping staff to combat a fiendishly complex global problem. For all the unanswered questions that still surround the departure of its most senior anti-doping official, Gabriel Dolle, in December, many in the anti-doping world maintain that the IAAF’s small staff is one of the best in the business. Yet they also argue that they are woefully under-resourced, overworked and completely ill equipped to unpick the level of embedded corruption suggested by the allegations against the Russian federation that an independent IAAF ethics committee headed by Michael Beloff has now spent eight long months looking into.
Meanwhile Valentin Balakhnichev, the former IAAF treasurer and president of the Russian athletics federation who stepped away from his role under pressure from the IAAF council in December, is here in Beijing (although not, it is said, in any official role).
The head of European Athletics, Svein Arne Hansen, spoke for many in the sport on Tuesday when he called for the next president of the IAAF to take the issue by the scruff of the neck. “Doping in sport is a complex challenge and I think we need to expand the fight and our dialogue beyond new rules and the number of doping control tests carried out,” he said. But making it the number one item on the agenda can only be the start.
Continuing to focus on out-of-competition tests, going anywhere in the world where athletes train and using the latest techniques (however costly) is only the next step. A future in which each major sport – particularly those, like cycling and athletics, with most to lose – has a truly independent anti-doping unit, with Wada as an umbrella regulator, would help.
They could work alongside (properly funded) national anti-doping organisations to start to grapple with the real underlying issues as well as testing. But they must also have teeth: give them the power to throw countries out of the sport or put in “special measures” if they are found to be riddled with systemic doping issues, until they are cleaned up.
A sports federation is never going to do that. It must empower independent units by giving them the ability to sanction while they get on with running and promoting their sport. Likewise, if Wada was given the authority to suspend sports from the Olympics and thus valuable funding streams – rather than it being a decision for an IOC that it is never likely to take – then it might have more teeth. In both cases, the argument has always been that innocent athletes will suffer. That may be so, and hugely regrettable, but desperate times call for drastic measures.
Wada, born out of the ashes of the Ben Johnson affair and jointly funded by the IOC and governments around the world, has its own issues to face. Is it truly independent? Is it a strong regulator with meaningful sanctions or simply a service provider? The swashbuckling attitude of Usada’s Travis Tygart should act as an example but, even more important than that, there must be a recognition of the need to fund this fight properly and to unpick the systems that allow a doping culture to take root.
At present, too many people are being sent to a shootout armed with a spud gun. There will always be individual cheats. So great are the rewards that rogue athletes and coaches will always seek to stay one step ahead of the scientists, whether that means new substances or new methods of ingestion. The $12m, jointly raised from 12 governments around the world and the IOC and recently earmarked by Wada for research, is therefore a valuable statement of intent.
But at a minimum sport must do all it can to dilute the cultures in which doping can flourish. The biggest, richest sports in the world must also be made to recognise their responsibility to properly fund the fight against doping so that Wada spends less time lobbying and begging for cash and more time doing the job it was created for. There is, of course, also an increased role for government and law enforcement to play but sport must recognise its responsibility to itself.
The challenge laid down by Dr Michael Ashenden, the eminent scientist who analysed the ARD/Sunday Times list, that those in sport to tackle doping with the same vigour with which they sought to produce winners is a good one. It is a challenge that sport collectively has the means to tackle. But has it the will?