David Owen

Contemplating the ashes of the current world anti-doping regime and the consequences of its forfeited credibility for the long-term marketability of Olympic sport, Thomas Bach, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) President, is looking for help. 

He has asked IOC members to “send in your thoughts” in advance of an assortment of think tanks, conferences and summits that we must all hope will come up with something better over coming days, weeks and months.

Not uncharacteristically, Richard Peterkin, an IOC member from Saint Lucia, has gone a step further: evidently accepting Bach’s plea as a genuine call for fresh thinking rather than an attempt to appear consensual before implementing a predetermined plan, Peterkin has used the social media platform Twitter to canvass the views of the hoi polloi.

“Looking for sensible and practical suggestions to include in my submission to the IOC”, he tweeted at the weekend, attaching my colleague Nick Butler’s scoop on Bach’s feedback call.

“Disruptive changes required.”

So, Dear Richard, here goes - my “sensible and practical” and, hell, at times maybe a trifle “disruptive” suggestions for beginning to sort out the mess that while failing utterly to take the chemists out of elite sport, has placed enormous, many would say unfair, demands on athletes and unintendedly propagated hypocrisy in industrial quantities.

Thomas Bach has called for feedback on the world's anti-doping regime ©Getty Images
Thomas Bach has called for feedback on the world's anti-doping regime ©Getty Images

Identify and agree a mechanism for substantially increased funding for anti-doping efforts.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has a pop-gun budget of some $30 million (£23 million/€27 million) a year.

True, lots of others - international sports federations (IFs), national anti-doping agencies (NADOs) etc - also spend money on combating doping. But if there is little or no coordination of what everyone is doing, it is a recipe for inefficiency, at best.

This isn’t just a matter of paying for better, more effective testing. Thanks to the Fancy Bears hacking group, you can add construction of a genuinely secure data management system and, perhaps, reform of the mechanism whereby therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) are awarded, to the list of urgent tasks.

This To Do list also includes regaining the trust of athletes, who have little choice but to go along with what is asked of them no matter how much they might suspect that the system is flawed.

Plus, I would argue, funding the development and manufacture of at least one alternative type of secure sample collection bottle.

Plus, I would further contend, establishing and maintaining elite teams of anti-doping troubleshooters, who can be parachuted into areas where particular problems are identified or suspected, once permission from the relevant authorities is secured.

The only quick way of obtaining enough funds to produce a step change in the effectiveness of anti-doping efforts, at least the only one that I can think of, is to earmark a percentage of IOC broadcast/marketing revenues for the task.

Chances are the IFs and National Olympic Committees (NOCs) will not like this: the attributed funds would be largely at their expense.

A spot of real leadership is therefore required: Bach, or another authority figure, needs to assume the responsibility of explaining to them that if things do not get a lot, lot better, Olympic sport’s attractiveness is likely to nosedive, resulting in future cheques getting a lot smaller.

Put the notion of a new "Integrity Unit" to collectively administer doping, match fixing and corruption issues firmly on the back burner.

This is something that might come legitimately onto the agenda, on grounds of efficiency and spreading best practice, if and when the anti-doping machinery is working demonstrably as intended. To raise such a concept now smacks of a power play.

With the present anti-doping system struggling so obviously to cope, the priority just has to be getting that right before imposing supplementary organisational reforms likely to distract from the main task at hand.

Far more important is to strike the right balance on anti-doping between sports bodies and Government.

So much of the ground that needs to be covered is wrapped up in sensitive issues of national and international policy that there is no question of Governments having to be involved.

Yet dogmatic insistence that funding and control of anti-doping’s organisational cornerstone, WADA, be split 50:50 between the sports movement and Government has hamstrung the system: national administrations, even when they genuinely back the fight against doping, will always have more pressing things to spend their money on and, hence, will usually tend to oppose meaningful budget increases.

Rather than abolishing WADA, which again would probably create all manner of complications and distractions away from the front-line of the battle, I would argue for slimming down and restructuring its Foundation Board, offering Governments perhaps four representatives out of 12.

The IOC would also have four, leaving room for four independents. The most sensitive matters could be made subject to votes requiring a two-thirds majority. The body should have some freedom to raise its own funding over and above that garnered from IOC broadcast/marketing revenues and from Governments - for example from other sports broadcasting deals.

The World Anti-Doping Agency and its President Sir Craig Reedie have had to endure heavy criticism ©Getty Images
The World Anti-Doping Agency and its President Sir Craig Reedie have had to endure heavy criticism ©Getty Images

Make athlete health the key determinant of what is outlawed.

It seems self-evident to me that health protection, rather than establishing that an athlete has an infinitesimal amount of such and such a substance in their system, should be the main aim of a sensible anti-doping policy.

Good health is to some extent a subjective concept. However, it should not be beyond the wit of man to establish panels of medical specialists capable of monitoring athletes’ biological parameters to assess when health is being put at risk.

The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI)’s hematocrit limit is an example of this sort of policy in action, though if such an approach were to become more widely systematised, I think periods of ineligibility should be longer.

Few of us are ever exposed to the sort of competitive pressures routinely experienced by top-class athletes.

Nonetheless, if alerted to something that could make us better at our jobs with no down-side, such as prohibitive cost or adverse side-effects, I imagine many of us would want to try it out. Why should we expect professional athletes to be any different?

Wherever we fix the limits in sport, a proportion of cheats will seek to beat the system in pursuit of an illicit edge over their rivals.

Why make things more difficult than they need be by banning performance-enhancing substances that are not harmful period, or not harmful below a certain threshold?

Technically, this means rewriting section 4.3.1 of the World Anti-Doping Code to remove the wholesome but vague and quaint concept of the “spirit of sport”.

A century on from de Coubertin, the spirit of sport, I hope, retains a place in top-level competition, but not in a quasi-legal document.

Don’t try to do too much

By which I mean only outlaw substances and practices you are very confident you can police effectively - except where athlete health is plainly at issue.

If you can’t detect, say, micro-dosing with any degree of confidence, don’t make the legal threshold for substances being ingested in this way zero.

This might raise eyebrows: isn’t it tantamount to admitting defeat?

Well, yes, temporarily, until your detection methods have improved, I suppose it is.

But if you do ban something genuinely performance-enhancing, with little or no prospect of effectively enforcing the ban, you encourage the sort of hypocrisy that is so damaging to sport and place honest athletes, some of whom have the misfortune to be born into authoritarian sporting regimes, in a very difficult position.

With a substance such as growth hormone, which was banned for years before an even moderately effective test was developed, the potential health repercussions are such – growth of all parts of the body, including internal organs, may be stimulated - that authorities probably had no choice.

Even so, imagine the mental anguish that many athletes must have gone through when the penny dropped that by refusing to take a substance that, while illegal, carried zero risk of detection, they may well have been putting themselves at a significant disadvantage to rivals who had a win-at-all-costs mentality or little say over what they consumed.

This anguish may have been particularly intense in the days pre-1986 when the only source of growth hormone was the pituitary glands of cadavers.

High profile doping scandals have rocked the public's confidence in sport ©Getty Images
High profile doping scandals have rocked the public's confidence in sport ©Getty Images

Use some of the extra funding to conduct proper research into just how harmful widely-abused PEDs are.

Because of the propagandistic side of the war against doping, there is a tendency to demonise performance-enhancing drugs, even if there is little hard evidence they are particularly harmful at the levels used by many transgressors.

Given that drugs which have been abused for decades, such as the steroid stanozolol, still crop up with great regularity in positive samples, it would make a lot of sense to earmark money for long-term studies of the health of confessed drug cheats.

I can see no reason why an adequate proportion of those approached would not be willing to cooperate.

Some will fear that such studies might provoke further abuse if certain drugs are shown to be less harmful at typical doses than frequently portrayed.

I am old-fashioned enough to believe it is better to get the true facts out there.

Take nationality as far as possible out of the fight against doping.

I think one can probably surmise that most out-of-competition doping tests are conducted, and maybe even analysed, by people of the same nationality as the athlete concerned.

If that assertion is accurate, then I think it is a situation we should be striving to get away from.

To a degree, anti-doping operations will always be regulated by national laws, and so they should be.

But that does not mean that all anti-doping business in a given national jurisdiction needs invariably to be carried out by individuals from that jurisdiction.

Indeed, it could be argued that the natural patriotic wish of people, yes even doping control officers, to see their country as high up the Olympic medals table as possible, constitutes a potential conflict of interest making it desirable for a mix of different nationalities to be involved in anti-doping operations whenever possible.

I think there is a good argument for WADA to train up a cadre of elite anti-doping specialists and for a minimum of at least one of these individuals to be placed on secondment at each NADO around the world.

Each secondment should be relatively brief, maybe six months, to prevent relationships becoming too cosy.

The aim of such a system would be to promote uniform high standards and obtain early warning of developing problems.

Could there be a league table of WADA laboratories? ©Getty Images
Could there be a league table of WADA laboratories? ©Getty Images

Introduce a league table of WADA-accredited laboratories.

Consideration should be given to starting a league table of WADA-accredited laboratories, based on a range of criteria ranking analytical performance, value for money and other relevant features.

The aim, obviously enough, would be to raise standards and efficiency, but also to chip away at any preconception that just because you have a lab in your country, you should automatically always use it.

Labs sliding down the table should be subject to special scrutiny by WADA teams, even if they don’t actually fail any of the periodic tests WADA already conducts.

Respectfully submitted…