David Owen: If science can't beat drugs cheats, what can?

Friday, 23 December 2011
David Owen_small1The drug-buster's uniform has traditionally been the neatly-pressed white lab-coat.

But with the Summer Olympics year nearly upon us, a grimy Columbo-style detective's mac is starting to look like an ever more appropriate alternative.

The transition has been happening for some time, but I was alerted to the extent to which the tables – or, in this case, wardrobes - have now been turned by two recent events.

The first was a supremely thought-provoking speech delivered in New York by David Howman, Director General of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA); the second a briefing at UK Anti-Doping's London HQ at which the four-year ban meted out to athlete Carl Fletcher was discussed.

This case is a landmark for the national anti-doping body of next year's Olympic Games host-country, since it is the UK's first trafficking violation.

In the close co-operation it required between UKAD and relevant law enforcement agencies, it also highlights the sort of direction an increasing number of anti-doping investigations are likely to take in coming years.

For an explanation of why this evolution is taking place, one need look no further than Howman's excellent speech this month to the Partnership for Clean Competition Conference.

David HowmanHowman (pictured) said (and I make no apology for quoting at length): "The fight against doping in sport has reached the stage where science alone will not eradicate cheating or often even detect it.

"Sample collection and analysis is getting more expensive.

"The rules appear to some to be getting more complicated.

"Laboratory directors and scientists in general continue to be conservative.

"Indeed it may be suggested that some err in favour of not returning adverse results for fear of the legal process and the time required to give evidence under attack.

"The clever cheating athlete on the other hand is becoming better at cheating, more sophisticated and funded extensively.

"That athlete might now be confidently of the view that he or she will avoid detection under the historical approach.

"What has become more apparent now is that the mode of collection of evidence need not be simply nor solely through the means of testing.

"Already we have moved far from being reliant only on such processes...."

This increasing onus on investigations, with the involvement of police officers and other specialist law enforcement bodies, makes a lot of sense.

It enables sport – and by extension society – to target networks rather than end-users.

If it works, it is likely to be far more disruptive to supplies, and therefore use, of performance-enhancing drugs in the same way that breaking up a cocaine cartel is likely to have a more profound impact on the market for recreational drugs than any number of police raids on high rollers' parties.

But it also raises a host of questions.

Many of these relate to matters of ethics and personal liberty that I don't want to delve into here.

But there is one which I think needs to be focused on with some urgency, particularly in Summer Olympics year.

The question is this: if science cannot eradicate, or even detect, clever cheats, shouldn't the anti-doping movement be shifting resources to methods and procedures that stand a better chance of success?

All the more so given the pressure on costs that Howman also alludes to.

Sure, the sort of in-competition testing that will no doubt be conducted with great solemnity at London 2012 is likely to unmask the occasional cheat.

As Howman observes, "There continues to be the "dumb" doper who is regularly caught through standard testing protocols".

This doper, he adds, "effectively catches him or herself".

But I would argue that it may also give everyone a false sense of security – as dope-testing has done in the past – by implying that the frequency of doping is much lower than it actually is.

Given that funding is all too finite, how much better would it be, if athletes were left to savour their crowning moment without peeing into a cup and the millions saved diverted into a) investigations such as the one recently outlined by UKAD and b) genuine unannounced, out-of-competition (and out-of-season) testing, which would have a much greater likelihood of making even the clever cheats sweat?

If anyone from an anti-doping lab is on your Christmas-present list this year, perhaps it is time to consider that Peter Falk mac.

David Owen worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2010 World Cup. Owen's Twitter feed can be accessed here 
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