David Owen

An expanding, if troubled, market which the long-time leader is unexpectedly vacating.

How many times does that happen?

No wonder the anti-doping sample collection business has a little bit of a gold-rush feel about it at the moment.

I wrote last week about Versapak, the British company whose new urine transport kit is being made available at what looks to be a most opportune time.

Since then I have had contact with two other entities who seemingly aspire to play a part in anti-doping sample collection in future.

One of them - the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) - is plainly very well known in anti-doping circles.

The other - LockCon - is a new name, but one represented by two individuals, Roger Sabat and Monika Egli, who, again, seem familiar to people in this peculiar, but vital, corner of the sports industry.

USADA has teamed up with Major League Baseball (MLB) in a venture - Secure Doping Control - which aims to set what it terms “the new gold standard in doping control”.

It talks of “reimagining the sample collection process”, of creating “an integrated system of products and services”, of “revolutionary technology” and of “advanced materials”.

Besides a suggestion of more allowance for the differing needs of male and female athletes, however, there is precious little indication, as yet, as to what all of this will add up to – not least because market leader Berlinger’s withdrawal announcement was, I think, genuinely unexpected.

The anti-doping system has been hit by concerns over the sample kits in recent months ©Getty Images
The anti-doping system has been hit by concerns over the sample kits in recent months ©Getty Images

USADA did tell me though that it has been working with MLB since the end of 2016 and that it expects a product or products to be available “hopefully by the end of the year”.

According to USADA chairman Edwin Moses: “We are here to serve athletes and are always looking for ways to innovate for them.

“With collection bottles, we saw a real and immediate need when the current system was compromised.

“We partnered with MLB to develop a revolutionary athlete-friendly solution that provides confidence in the security of the process.”

LockCon is placing more of an emphasis on convenience, urging prospective customers to “rely on our hassle-free system for safe and secure sample collection”.

The company says its “team of industry specialists understand your needs and offer complete and integrated solutions for you and your organisation.

“By introducing the latest standards and technologies, you can relax knowing that the sample collection process is simple, fast and reliable.”

A conversation with Egli on a Swiss number failed to elicit much further information, other than that my inquiry had come “a bit too early” and “maybe we can talk in about two months”.

There is a legitimacy to the current sense of urgency: Berlinger product will not last forever.

When I spoke to Michel D’Hooghe, chairman of football governing body FIFA’s medical committee, he told me FIFA – whose World Cup is the stand-out event in this summer of sport - could make use of Berlinger stock until the end of the year.

USADA said that it was “comfortable”, while adding that “new manufacturing needs to take place to ensure 2019 is covered”.

Graeme Steel, chief executive of the Institute of National Anti-Doping Organisations (iNADO), stated that the “best estimate is that there is currently approximately six months’ supply of Berlinger’s “Berig Kits” either in the hands of anti-doping organisations (ADOs) or available from Berlinger stocks”.

Edwin Moses said they are always looking for ways to innovate the system to help protect athletes ©Getty Images
Edwin Moses said they are always looking for ways to innovate the system to help protect athletes ©Getty Images

In this context, it is worth bearing in mind that just under 230,000 samples were received and analysed by World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)-accredited labs in 2015.

But is there not a chance that, even allowing for the presence of Versapak, bottlenecks (no pun intended) might start to develop as we move further into what is effectively a transitional period?

Steel’s statement acknowledges that remaining supplies “may not be evenly distributed”, while adding that ADOs “should have sufficient stocks for the short term at least”.

INADO is confident, Steel says, that “the matter can be progressed in a manner which ensures that testing programmes will not be compromised”.

For its part WADA - while emphasising that “the responsibility of sourcing doping control kits that meet the International Standard for Testing and Investigations (ISTI) rests with individual ADOs”- also says that Berlinger is “still very much involved in this situation as we all endeavour to make sure there is no break in supply”.

While facing up to this race against time, though, the anti-doping sector needs to rethink many of its rules of engagement for a world still reeling from the torrent of scarcely believable allegations and revelations that has gushed forth in recent times.

And while regulators cannot afford to dilly-dally here either, they must make sure they get things right.

The patience of athletes, Governments and for that matter the public at large has become stretched by a system that seemingly makes ever greater impositions, be they personal or financial, while producing little evidence that doping in sport is any less of a problem than it was a generation ago.

For one thing, given the potency of forces who are apparently willing to try to undermine the system, one is drawn to conclude that “tamper-proof” is no longer possible, if indeed it ever was.

Berlinger's withdrawal has led to a gap in the market ©Getty Images
Berlinger's withdrawal has led to a gap in the market ©Getty Images

"Tamper-evident” hopefully is still attainable.

This seems to me to have important, potentially costly, implications for securing the chain of custody from athlete to completed analysis.

Given the raft of potential new suppliers, one could imagine that regulators might take the opportunity to look again at specifications for products and procedures to ensure they are fit for purpose and that standards are as high as possible.

If you are going to do that, there might be an argument for assessing athletes’ rights and evaluating whether for example whereabouts requirements could be made any less onerous at the same time.

There certainly seems to be a need, in light of the frankly gob-smacking disclosures of recent years, to reassure clean athletes convincingly that their sacrifices are worthwhile and that most drug cheats are, sooner or later, caught.

Given the unremittingly gloomy doping revelations of these past few years, the buzz of creative activity surrounding something as mundane as a new generation of sample kits at present is actually somewhat reassuring, even allowing for the uncertainties of coming months.

But with public cynicism rife and the array of alternative pursuits available to young people wider than ever, sport can ill afford not to emerge from this period of anti-doping turmoil with a system that is demonstrably more effective than what went before.