Nick Butler

Another week, another series of doping allegations. Athletics and swimming have come in for their fair share of scandals in recent times, but yesterday it was the turn of other sports to feel the wrath of a media investigation.

The Sunday Times secretly filmed Dr Mark Bonar claiming, over dinner, to have treated more than 150 athletes with banned substances, including erythropoietin, anabolic steroids and human growth hormone over the last six years.

“Clients” supposedly included “many household names”, including an England cricketer, British Tour de France cyclists, a British boxing champion, tennis players and martial arts competitors, as well as footballers from leading Premier League clubs Arsenal, Chelsea and Leicester City.

Perhaps most worryingly of all, at least from the perspective of housewives across Middle England, contestants on celebrity television show Strictly Come Dancing were also supposedly provided with drugs, although I’m not sure if this can officially be classed as doping until the BBC introduces a banned list…

UK Anti-Doping (UKAD), considered one of the world’s leading national bodies who are currently working with the suspended Russian Anti-Doping Agency to help with their testing programme, was warned about the doctor’s activities two years ago. They admit, however, they failed to contact Bonar or pass the evidence on to the General Medical Council (GMC). Culture, Media and Sports Minister John Whittingdale claimed to be “shocked and deeply concerned” by this and has ordered an independent investigation into why action was not taken.

This all provides another reminder of the scale of the problems of doping across world sport, even in sports - like football and tennis – which adopt a holier than thou “nothing to see here” attitude. It is also a reminder to us in the Western world that is not just the big bad Russians and other far-off countries that dope, but that problems lurk closer to home as well.

We may not have state-supported doping, like some of these countries, but there are plenty of athletes prepared to find their own way to get hold of banned substances they hope will improve their performances. It cannot be assumed that, just because someone appears nice and British, they are any less likely to cheat than Viktor from Volgograd.

It was alleged that 150 athletes had been involved in doping through Dr Mark Bonar ©Sunday Times
It was alleged that 150 athletes had been involved in doping through Dr Mark Bonar ©Sunday Times

That said, these latest allegations are certainly less than clear-cut.

The Sunday Times was quick to compare Bonar with other “doping doctors” like Michele Ferrari and Eufemiano Fuentes - best known for their involvement in the respective Lance Armstrong and Operación Puerto cycling scandals.

But they have so far gathered no independent evidence Bonar treated the players, something they admitted themselves in their story. They have thus refrained from naming names until his claims have been further investigated.

Unsurprisingly, there have been a chorus of denials, particularly from the football clubs.

Bonar himself has also attempted to dismiss the claims this morning. “The @SundayTimesNews allegations are false and very misleading,” he wrote on Twitter. “I have never had a relationship with any premier football club or player. I have never prescribed Androgen therapy for the purpose of performance enhancement treat symptomatic men with low Test levels.”

Okay, the phrase “never had a relationship” may be significant here, and there are plenty of interactions - such as dealing drugs - which arguably do not constitute a relationship.

His reliability is also questionable. The 38-year-old, who describes himself on Twitter as a ”Concierge Doctor & Entrepreneur” is already embroiled in a misconduct hearing after allegedly failing to inform a patient that her cancer was terminal, meaning he could keep charging her for treatment. He is no longer registered as an active General Practitioner and could lose his licence completely.

Is it possible then that his claims during his alcohol-fuelled dinner were more to do with Walter Mitty than Michele Ferrari?

What of the allegations themselves? Again, it is hard to draw many conclusions given the lack of identities but something doesn’t quite ring true, certainly in relation to the football clubs, the only concrete names we have.

Bonar was allegedly introduced to footballers through Rob Brinded, a former fitness coach at Chelsea who, unsurprisingly, strongly denies all allegations. Yet considering how Premier League footballers must be among the most closeted and molly-coddled people on the planet - their clubs apparently look after the passports of many players - it seems hard to imagine individuals sneaking off to covertly use a doctor independently.

If there is doping in football, surely it is likely to be at a higher, more covert, club-centred level? It is ironic that one of the clubs accused is Arsenal, whose longstanding manager Arsene Wenger has repeatedly spoken out about the dangers of doping in football. Another is Leicester City, the team that were seven points adrift at the bottom of the table this time last year but are now seven points clear at the top of the Premier League, the sort of turn around in fortunes that if it happened in the 100 metres would draw plenty of suspicion...

While doping would be one explanation for that remarkable turnaround, the allegations as it stand seem to hold water little more than the drug references in the fans song about their star striker. (For the record: “Jamie Vardy’s having a party. Bring your vodka and your charlie...)

Premier League leaders Leicester City are among clubs to have strongly denied all allegations ©Getty Images
Premier League leaders Leicester City are among clubs to have strongly denied all allegations ©Getty Images

On the other hand, it would be of nobody in the game’s interest - except journalists - to have a doping scandal, so would there be cover-ups if tests were failed? Drug testing is clearly rudimentary compared with that in other sports, and less blood tests or athlete biological passports are utilised.

Former Partick Thistle player Jordan McMillan is the only British footballer currently banned by drug use UKAD, and that was for cocaine (also known as charlie). Dinamo Zagreb’s Macedonian midfielders Arijan Ademi has been banned for four years following a Champions League match - against Arsenal  - in September.

So, to return to the case at hand, what is likely to happen next?

The most obvious consequence could affect UKAD, with figures including Toni Minichiello, coach of world and Olympic heptathlon champion Jessica Ennis-Hill, already calling for the resignation of UKAD chief executive Nicole Sapstead.

But even this is less than black and white. UKAD were approached two years ago by an athlete caught in doping, now revealed by the Daily Mail to have been cyclist Dan Stevens, a little-known amateur rider banned for for refusing to provide a sample.

In the hope of reducing his suspension, Stevens reportedly provided more than 100 names, including celebrities as well as sportsmen, but little evidence to back up his bold claims.

UKAD tipped off Border Force officers who carried out a raid on an athlete accused of trafficking drugs, but found nothing. Stevens, meanwhile, was able to provide only two handwritten prescriptions and his evidence was considered “too weak” for further action.

'We did look into the information,” UKAD director of operations Pat Myhill told the Daily Mail. “We tried to corroborate it from a number of sources. We certainly carried out some activities which included testing athletes. We certainly shared information the athlete gave us with a law enforcement agency - the Border Force. We did do some athlete testing as a direct result of the information that the person gave to us. We did as much as we could in the circumstances.”

UK Anti-Doping officials, including chief executive Nicole Saptead, will have to defend themselves from allegations of wrongdoing following the report in The Sunday Times ©UKAD
UK Anti-Doping officials, including chief executive Nicole Saptead, will have to defend themselves from allegations of wrongdoing following the report in The Sunday Times ©UKAD

An investigation is therefore necessary to ascertain if this was true, although, given this defence, it seems strange UKAD were not more aggressive in their rebuttal of the Sunday Times’ story yesterday.

And is the broader point that more financial support is needed for UKAD and other bodies to investigate doping allegations?

A Parliamentary Enquiry - as we saw with last year’s one on blood doping in relation to marathon world record holder, Paula Radcliffe - could lead to names emerging through the cloak of Parliamentary privilege due to their immunity from prosecution for otherwise libellous claims.

It is also possible, of course, that other potential whistleblowers could be encouraged to step forward. If 150 athletes were involved, then surely there must be hundreds of coaches, family members who were aware of what was going on? There may be more evidence to come from Bonar, although the Sunday Times are bound to have scoured intensively before publishing.

As it stands, it therefore seems unlikely that this could do to football, or any sport, what the 2014 German ARD documentary on Russian doping did for athletics. Blood bags still lurking in a Barcelona freezer as part of Operación Puerto are more of worry ahead of a pending decision as to whether to destroy them or not, with suspicions that footballers may be implicated as well as cyclists and others.

Time will tell but it is only fair that football, like all other sports, should have a greater spotlight shone on it than ever before.