Alan Hubbard ©ITGShould taking performance-enhancing drugs now be made a criminal offence?

When the question was put to Great Britain's three Parliamentary sports politicos assembled in Westminster for their own pre-election debate recently there was an ominous silence followed by a lot of umming and ahhing.

The trio - Conservative Sports Minister Helen Grant, her Labour Shadow Clive Efford and Liberal Democrats spokesman John Leech - all preferred to prevaricate. None wanted to commit themselves on what has become arguably the most burning issue in sport.

So the question was thrown open to the audience of journos and senior figures in sport, from where came an unequivocal response. "I never felt I would ever say this," declared Michele Verroken, "but yes I do."

Emanating from Britain's first-ever drugs czarina that was a compelling statement. Verroken was a key player and a leader in the establishment of Britain's anti-doping policy for 18 years when it was under the aegis of UK Sport until her controversial exit a decade ago.

Why she was sacked remains a mystery - not least to her - but it followed a clash with incoming chair Sue Campbell. It seemed UK Sport's arena wasn't big enough for two feisty females. Verroken had been very effective, but she was also very outspoken.

By an odd coincidence her dismissal after a spell of "gardening leave" came soon after it was learned that Rio Ferdinand had missed a scheduled UK Sport drugs test. So did someone put the football boot in?

Manchester United were furious at the leak of his lack of a leak. It certainly did not come from Verroken, but did the powerful football lobby, led by Sir Alex Ferguson, whispering in the ears of Prime Minister Tony Blair and his PR henchman Alastair Campbell, do for her as it did for then Sports Minister Kate Hoey?

Michele Verrokens dismissal from UK Sport came soon after it was learned that Rio Ferdinand had missed a scheduled drugs test in 2003 ©Getty ImagesMichele Verrokens dismissal from UK Sport came soon after it was learned that Rio Ferdinand had missed a scheduled drugs test in 2003 ©Getty Images



It was a rum business, especially as only a few weeks before the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) had praised Verroken's work.

There was no one else in the world with her experience of anti-doping except perhaps the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) own resident expert, Professor Arne Ljungqvist.

Verroken had been involved in the anti-doping procedures for every major sports event held in the UK and ten years on remains very much at the forefront of the anti-doping fray, running Sporting Integrity which advises international sports bodies and business corporations on matters of ethics and best practice.

Her efforts have earned her the recognition and support of some of the most powerful figures in world sport and have helped to shape the fight against doping in sport internationally. Her expertise in developing anti-doping programmes has been sought by a number of countries, including Ireland, South Africa and Saudi Arabia.

Since 2002 she has been secretary of the Commonwealth Games Federation Medical Commission, leading the coordination and delivery of the Games' anti-doping programme.

This week she has been speaking at the annual symposium on anti-doping organised by the WADA in Lausanne so her words carry some authority. When she says certain aspects of doping now need to be criminalised it is time to listen.

The evidence is damning. In the past few months positive tests have been recorded and suspensions imposed in athletics and cycling (no surprise there), rugby union, rugby league, ice hockey, tennis, weightlifting, boxing, American football and baseball.

Guilty nations have included the United Kingdom, the United States, France, Australia, Italy, Kenya, and Jamaica. As for Russia, well don't even go there! And goodness knows what is going on in China.

The United States' Wayne Odesnik has been hit with a 15-year suspension for a second doping violation ©Getty ImagesThe United States' Wayne Odesnik has been hit with a 15-year suspension for a second doping violation ©Getty Images



Only last week, Andy Murray tweeted "Bye bye Wayne... Good riddance" after American tennis player Wayne Odesnik was hit with a 15-year suspension for a second doping violation.

Odesnik, 29, who was banned for two years in 2010 for possession of human growth hormone, was found to have taken prohibited substances, including an anabolic steroid, after submitting out-of-competition urine samples in recent months.

As Murray said, it is the cheats - and too many obviously continue to prosper - who give sport a bad name.

Perhaps most damaging of all is the Cycling Independent Reform Commission's report which says that the endemic doping culture in the sport has spread to amateurs and even those who pedal for pleasure at weekends.

It claims Masters races have middle-aged businessmen using EPO so they can train as hard as Lance Armstrong. Seems EPO is now the new illegal high for the sporting middle classes.

Verroken believes, with certain caveats, there should now be recourse to law, with incorrigible athletes and coaches facing criminal prosecution.

"Originally I wasn't in favour of such draconian measures but my view has changed," she tells insidethegames.

"If they are proved to be out-and-out cheats then yes, we should indict them. But if as a result of criminal investigation it is proved they are not but rather, as the late Sir Arthur Gold termed it, the careless and the ill-advised, then obviously not.

"Let's put in place stronger measures for rehabilitation and treatment than exist at the present. Are we really doing enough to make any impact on the problem we are trying to address?"

The Cycling Independent Reform Commission's report claims Masters races have middle-aged businessmen using EPO so they can train as hard as Lance Armstrong ©Getty ImagesThe Cycling Independent Reform Commission's report claims Masters races have middle-aged businessmen using EPO so they can train as hard as Lance Armstrong ©Getty Images



"One thing that needs to be looked at is the standard of evidence. A lot of question marks exist over what constitutes a truly performance-enhancing drug," added Verroken. 

"We have created grey areas and athletes fall into them. If we use criminal criteria we would create higher standards and that should permeate throughout anti-doping. At least calling for criminalisation moves the debate on.

"What I find very sad is that the current framework seems to take away a number of responsibilities that should belong to the sports bodies themselves.

"Why should there be an an automatic freedom pass back into sport once a ban has ended? Why aren't governing bodies given the choice of saying: 'We are not sure we want you back'? Or at least have them back on a probationary basis. At the moment they are obligated to take back the cheat. Why should they have that burden?

"In a criminal situation you are looking at different gambits, such as probation officers and suspended sentences to deal with this problem.

"We must make the effort to make the culture of sport clean and more than just a media soundbite."

Indeed. And Verroken is by no means alone in believing the law courts need to be brought into play.

In Kenya, the great Kipchoge Keino has called on the Kenyan Government to make doping a criminal offence in an effort to combat the growing problem of performance-enhancing drugs among the country's athletes.

As President of the National Olympic Committee of Kenya (NOCK), he wants new legislation introduced, including prison sentences for coaches and agents who encourage athletes to take drugs.

Kipchoge Keino has called on the Kenyan Government to make doping a criminal offence in an effort to combat the growing problem of performance-enhancing drugs among the country's athletes ©Getty ImagesKipchoge Keino has called on the Kenyan Government to make doping a criminal offence in an effort to combat the growing problem of performance-enhancing drugs among the country's athletes ©Getty Images



"The reputation of our sportsmen and women has been tainted beyond any imagination," Keino, the Mexico City 1968 1,500 metres and Munich 1972 3,000m steeplechase gold medallist, told The Daily Nation. Keino, a former member of the IOC, has also blamed foreign agents for the situation.

He has been supported by Kenya's Deputy President, William Ruto, who has claimed the involvement of foreign agents and managers are behind the epidemic.

"An unfortunate situation  is coming into our country. Kenya has stood out for decades, since the 1960s when Ben Jipcho, Kipchoge Keino and many others were involved in sports and we never had instances of doping.

"It is only in the last year or two that we have begun to see Kenyans suspected or tested and found to be using drugs."

Boston and Chicago marathon champion Rita Jeptoo is the biggest name of the 26 Kenyans who failed drugs tests last year.

UK Anti-Doping, the new authority in Britain, is not pressing for criminalising major doping offences. Nor is British Olympic Association chair Sebastian Coe, despite his vehement anti-drugs stance.

And criminalisation is something WADA itself is reluctant to endorse. When Germany proposed making doping a criminal offence, WADA's British President Sir Craig Reedie criticised the move.

Why? The way things are going, with sport's hardened junkies still thumbing their noses at their pursuers, and the litany of doping never-ending, surely the only option left is to prosecute them and their suppliers under the law.

I am with Verroken on this: Time to call in the cops.

Alan Hubbard is a sports columnist for the Independent on Sunday and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered a total of 16 Summer and Winter Games, 10 Commonwealth Games, several football World Cups and world title fights from Atlanta to Zaire.