David Owen

With that key World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Foundation Board meeting fast approaching, last week seemed a good time for my first head-to-head with Travis Tygart, chief executive of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and the closest thing we have to an Eliot Ness of anti-doping.

And the lobby of London’s spectacular St Pancras Renaissance hotel seemed a fitting setting; after all, if you were choosing an architectural style to sum up sport’s efforts to rid itself of the scourge of doping, it would be High Gothic.

With governance issues top of the agenda at present, there was only one question to ask: given a fresh start and a blank sheet of paper, how would he structure the main anti-doping entities?

As the man widely credited for the investigation which led to cyclist Lance Armstrong being stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, Tygart has earned the right for his views on such matters to be taken seriously.

He gets straight to the issue from which, as he conceives things, pretty much everything else in terms of effective governance would flow: the need for a truly independent global regulator.

Travis Tygart, the chief executive of the US Anti-Doping Agency ©Getty Images
Travis Tygart, the chief executive of the US Anti-Doping Agency ©Getty Images

"It would have to be designed for what ultimately is the best outcome for clean athletes," he begins.

"It gives them the hope and confidence that they can not only compete clean, but also win clean.

"I think you have to start with a truly independent and conflict-free governance of WADA as a global regulator, not service provider…

"It can have Government representation; it might even have athlete representation [if they] are not active.

"But truly where you do not have people who sit in a sport-governing role and also sit in a sport-policing role."

So if people have retired from their roles in sport, that’s okay is it? I interject, making the point that if your definition of ‘independence’ is too strict, you risk depriving  yourself of anyone with relevant experience.

"Yes, if they don’t have a current governing role," Tygart replies.

"You can easily find people who aren’t continuing to be paid by a sports organisation or receiving credentials and tickets.

"It is pretty simple to draw a line and get all the expertise you need because you obviously want the knowledge of people who love and understand sport.

"The idea is not to exclude the knowledge and the experience.

"The idea is you cannot have individuals who have a conflicting duty to do everything on the one hand to protect their sport - which means not wiping away seven Tours de France, like sometimes you have to do, or removing gold medals, like sometimes you have to do - and then being in a position where you have to make those difficult decisions.

American cyclist Lance Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles ©Getty Images
American cyclist Lance Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles ©Getty Images

"There is an inherent conflict of interest there that if you simultaneously wear two hats and you have a legal duty to protect your sport, promote it,  grow it, and then also take action that might undermine it in the short term, it is impossible to do."

And on the point of not being both regulator and service provider?

"You could easily set up a global NADO [National Anti-Doping Organisation] - let’s say a GADO, a Global Anti-Doping Organisation, that could work with NADOs, that could work with International Federations…and have it overseen by the global regulator."

And in the event that a particular NADO was clearly deficient, what then?

"Then they would have to go in.

"The first option is hopefully to have, and rely on, an established NADO.

"But in the event that there is not one, then you have to gap-fill, you have to go in, whether it’s through a neighbouring NADO, or whether it’s your own personnel, which, look, is a big resource to develop doping control officers on the ground who you oversee.

"But there is the ability to get it done if you are determined that that is your role and that is your job."

It all sounds very clear and quite logical, and has taken no more than ten minutes to explain.

But of course neither Tygart, nor anyone else, can start with a blank sheet of paper.

Instead, we have a WADA Foundation Board, which we were able to watch in action in Glasgow just three days later, chock-full of International Federation Presidents.

And actually, while one can appreciate how anti-doping issues inevitably confront such individuals with delicate judgements and tough decisions that they can either take or shirk, it seems to me hard not to accept that they have a legitimate claim to some input into how policy is formulated - as long as they do not altogether control it.

I also tend to think that the whole question of independence is a little more slippery than Tygart perhaps gives it credit for.

Sir Craig Reedie is the newly reelected President of WADA  ©Getty Images
Sir Craig Reedie is the newly reelected President of WADA ©Getty Images

Retired sporting officials, for example, might retain close personal ties to those still running the show that one could easily imagine might influence their decision-making, even if they were no longer on sport’s payroll.

Or, to give a more concrete example, Sir Craig Reedie, WADA’s newly re-elected President, remains a member of a sports body - the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

But if you therefore conclude that, when push comes to shove during his second three-year term, Sir Craig is likely to do IOC President Thomas Bach’s bidding, I would suggest you are very seriously mistaken.

The near civil war that has followed the two bodies’ difference of opinion over Russian participation at Rio affords a striking example of WADA’s capacity for independent action under current governance structures, even if it also highlighted the limitations of its powers.

This area was discussed at Sunday’s Foundation Board meeting, with the anti-doping body’s Compliance Review Committee seeking support for a new system of graded sanctions to penalise non-compliance with the Code.

I understand that progress towards a new anti-doping testing authority advocated by the Olympic Movement – a version of Tygart’s GADO - became bogged down, however.

Besides the issue of keeping this sort of service provision separate from WADA’s regulatory responsibilities, I am told that Governments are also reticent about shouldering part of the cost of the new venture, in addition to the 50 per cent of WADA funding that they already provide.

Tygart’s views on therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs), which can give athletes access to otherwise banned medication on legitimate health grounds, are also worth recording.

I must admit to being a little taken by surprise at how uncritical he is of the current system. This is what he said:

"I think the 2015 rules, when they are robustly implemented, are good and strike a right and fair balance between allowing medications for needed medical conditions and ensuring health and no performance enhancement.

"When that is done, it is independent doctors who review it.

"It is the regulator – essentially us in the United States – that ultimately decides, and then that is provided to the World Anti-Doping Agency to appeal if they disagree with it.

"So I think the system is extremely robust when it is implemented correctly.”

Shouldn’t details of athletes’ TUEs at least be published?

Travis Tygart believes athletes are subjected to more disclosure and transparency than candidates for the office of the President  ©Getty Images
Travis Tygart believes athletes are subjected to more disclosure and transparency than candidates for the office of the President ©Getty Images

He answers this with a reference to the recent US Presidential election, noting that neither candidate in that contest disclosed their medical records.

He drives home the point with a barrister's panache: "We subject our athletes to by far more disclosure and transparency than candidates for the office of the President, and I would submit any other leadership position in the world…

"It’s the same point: you can’t have an International Federation, who has an interest in having the best athletes perform the best, making decisions on if they are allowed to use medications.

"That is the inherent problem.

"And that stems from this whole concept of the fox guarding the hen-house, which we have to remove - and once you remove it, the rest of it I think flows in a very fair way, and athletes buy into that."

So, once again, Tygart’s fundamental contention: if you get the regulator right, most other issues can be sorted.

"I think all those programmes," he says, “whether it’s who is tested before major competitions, the investigative side, the laboratory side, the collection side, the perceived conflict of interest of nationalism, all that can be taken care of and dealt with by a global regulator.

"Right now it hasn’t been because the sports organisations are reluctant to venture into that territory because of what it might ultimately expose…

"Sport just has to realise in this area - the policing mechanism - they have to give up some control.

"And they hate that.

"That is really what this is all about."

Now there I do agree with him – sport has to give up some control.

But not all control.

In the past few months, more than at any time in its 17-year existence, WADA has shown a preparedness to stand up to Olympic bosses.

While anti-doping needs a funding mechanism that leaves it less directly dependent on the Olympic Movement, we should perhaps not dismiss the potential significance of that development.