Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

Last week's announcement that Alberto Salazar, the head coach at the Nike Oregon Project, had been banned for four years by the United States Anti-Doping Agency meant Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) representatives here in Doha had to serve immediate notices prohibiting athletes under his charge from further association.

As he reflected on the frenzied activity taking place elsewhere in the city, David Howman, chairman of the AIU - established by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) in April 2017 as an independent body to rule on anti-doping and other integrity issues – sat forward on his chair in his hotel lobby and stressed that, whatever the case may have been against Salazar, it did not - necessarily - extend to a case against all, or even some, of the athletes in his charge.

"An athlete is not guilty by association," he insisted. "Not unless you then defy the prohibition order, so to speak, and return to the coach."

But if a coach has been proven to be using questionable means, does that not mean that the athletes under his charge are also open to doubt?

There was a slight pause.

"I think it falls into the category of information that you might use by way of intelligence to see who should be tested," Howman responded. 

"And information that might fall into the category of building up information about particular athletes.

"What we do now, with data collection and retention, in any which way, is useful in case it might be needed in the future. So that's the way.

"You've just got to keep an eye on them."

The four-year ban imposed on US coach Alberto Salazar will have put athletes who have been under his charge under increased scrutiny, says AIU chairman David Howman ©Getty Images
The four-year ban imposed on US coach Alberto Salazar will have put athletes who have been under his charge under increased scrutiny, says AIU chairman David Howman ©Getty Images

On Thursday (October 3), the International Olympic Committee (IOC) President, Thomas Bach, described the Salazar case as "very concerning" and underlined his desire to know how many athletes were being subsequently investigated, over what period, and whether any Olympic results could have been either directly or indirectly affected.

That comment will have been well received by Howman, who returned to his native New Zealand last Monday (September 30). As was the statement the IOC President made here on the eve of the Championships that a "fresh look" would need to be taken at new claims that the data handed over to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) by the Moscow Laboratory in the wake of the Russian doping crisis had been "manipulated".

"I think that's very sensible," Howman said. "If he had said otherwise, that would be shocking. 

"Everybody has got to be able to listen and to see what's coming out. You can't make a decision in advance without knowing what the full picture is, so I think that's a very sensible comment."

Patience appears to be one of the primary requirements for anyone operating in international anti-doping circles. But the clock is ticking right now.

On September 23, WADA gave the Russian Anti-Doping Agency and the Russian Sports Ministry three weeks to explain alleged discrepancies between the Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) database provided by a whistleblower in October 2017, and the version WADA extracted from the Moscow Laboratory in January.

Compliance Review Committee (CRC) chairman Jonathan Taylor told insidethegames last month that a team of forensic experts which analysed the data could find no "innocent reason" for the inconsistencies.

Taylor also warned the CRC will pursue the strongest available sanctions if deliberate manipulation is proven, although their recommendation would have to be approved by the WADA Executive Committee.

Meanwhile, the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) President Stanislav Pozdnyakov has admitted the country's participation at Tokyo 2020 "could be under threat".

Tick-tock, tick-tock. Pawn to king's bishop four. Tick-tock, tick-tock…

What does Howman think will happen?

David Howman, chairman of the Athletics Integrity Unit, is hoping the next significant steps in the Russian doping crisis can be taken next month ©Getty Images
David Howman, chairman of the Athletics Integrity Unit, is hoping the next significant steps in the Russian doping crisis can be taken next month ©Getty Images

"We have to wait to see," he said. "These are not my words - we've seen deletions, according to John Taylor, we've seen inconsistencies, mentioned by WADA, and we've seen manipulations. 

"I think what we have to do is exhibit quite a strong degree of patience to say 'let's wait to see how all the cards fall on the table and what that means'.

"But we won't get that until the reports are made public. And they have to be made public. From my point of view, whatever has gone on must be made totally clear to the public.

"WADA has given Russia 21 days to respond. When they do respond, John Taylor's CRC will need to meet to consider the response. They may wish to ask further questions, so it could take a while for them to get what they want.

"But there is a WADA Executive meeting taking place in early November, so that's the first point at which there may be some more information given.

"We would expect to get it at the AIU, because we have to then give our data to the Task Force that will be reporting to the IAAF Council - or World Athletics by then of course - on November 22.

"So there are two dates in November that are reasonably pivotal in whatever process is going to happen. Whether it's all complete by then, as everybody wishes, who knows?"

As the IAAF President Sebastian Coe put it, the current AIU examination of the data from the Moscow Laboratory that relates to them is akin to the study of 51,000 CDs. Howman attempted to explain it in slightly different terms.

"When WADA got all that data from the Moscow lab, they worked on a lot of it, and provided packages to five [International] Federations - not us," he said. "And those five Federations were given case briefs on 47 cases related to athletes and WADA now expects that those Federations, who have not been named, will take sanction processes against them.

"What we were given was not the briefs, but all the data. And so it's our job at the AIU to analyse the data the same way that WADA has already done it for these other five Federations. You would have to ask WADA that, but I think it is because they respect that we can do the work and we would like to do the work, it's just that it's massive.

"It's very hard to describe how massive it is because it's just beyond comprehension, so telling an ordinary person you have to read the morning paper five times in 10 seconds - that's the kind of unbelievable position you are in.

"We have not finished that yet. We have got a long way down the track. What we are doing is sharing what we have been able to find with WADA, who continue to share information with us. So we're working with them in a collaborative approach, with our mind only on athletics and their mind on everything.

"Our process is slightly different, not in terms of the analysis but in terms of what we have to provide, because we at the AIU give facts that we discover to the Task Force, and they then make recommendations to the IAAF Council.

"WADA has to provide its information to its CRC and John Taylor, and they make a recommendation to the WADA Executive Board. So we are going on parallel lines with different goals in that we are in a process where there is a suspension, they are in a process where a suspension has been lifted.

"We got the data in June. As to how long it will take, it's a piece of string. But we are hoping it will be completed by November.

"The other thing I should say about Russia is that you will have seen in the [IAAF] Task Force report that we have got another investigation going in relation to a Russian athlete and that was partially informed by the Task Force to the Council – that is another investigation that has to be completed."

The Russian Sports Ministry was given 21 days to respond to WADA's finding that the anti-doping data handed over from the Moscow Laboratory had been tampered with ©Getty Images
The Russian Sports Ministry was given 21 days to respond to WADA's finding that the anti-doping data handed over from the Moscow Laboratory had been tampered with ©Getty Images

That is the investigation into claims that forged paperwork was submitted by the Russian Athletics Federation to help world indoor high jump champion Danil Lysenko avoid a doping ban last year.

Howman did not want to comment specifically on the WADA situation, but he did say this: "If you understand how bad guys operate, which you have to, they don't think the same way as good guys. They could either be doing something to divert from something else, or they could be stupid.

"And I wouldn't want to form a final view on which end of the spectrum this might fall until we see the actual dominoes, and as they fall it might lead to something else that will say 'this was a contrived issue, or this was an intentional approach, or this was stupid'. And I think we are just going to have to wait.

"The one thing I think we do have to understand is that the world of sport never used to have this sort of investigation. So you could be working in the world of sport for 50 years, and never be subjected to any enquiry about what you had done. In the last five, six years that has been turned around.

"And it's happening in relation to betting, it's happening in relation to corruption charges and doping charges. It has actually changed markedly. And so the people who have worked in the world of sport for many years will be seeing something they haven't experienced in the past and so therefore may not know how to cope with it."

One of the most important initiatives the AIU is currently undertaking is to be more pro-active in requesting athletes to agree that any residue from their blood tests can be used, anonymously, to help further research.

Howman explains: "What the researchers continually say is 'you ask us to do research but we never get samples from the people that we are then supposed to be making decisions about – the elite athletes. So how do we get access to them?'

"This is the key. You are not allowed to use any human sample for research unless you get the athlete's consent. It is done anonymously. It is totally disconnected from the donor. And it can be used for developing new approaches."

Howman, formerly director general of WADA, recently criticised what he felt was an unhelpful reliance on old approaches by the organisation, in particular urine-testing.

New methods of taking blood samples have been developed by WADA requiring only pin pricks ©Getty Images
New methods of taking blood samples have been developed by WADA requiring only pin pricks ©Getty Images

"There is a new project in relation to detection through blood pricks rather than taking a whole sample," he said. 

"That is something in the future. My criticism was that we can't continuously rely on the thing that was invented in 1970. You can look around a room now and say there's not much that was around in 1970. So why are we still doing the same thing in relation to this?

"Surely it can be done better.

"There are a couple of projects going on relating to genetic doping. And another one called genomics, which is another way of starting to detect what people have within their bodies. And predicting.

"What we are trying to do is advance the way in which analysis can take place to detect doping. We have initiated a blood laboratory in Nairobi which you know about. 

"We are the first international federation to have done something like that. So that might show you that we are trying to think outside the box as to how to approach the issue of detecting the dopers.

"Athletics Kenya has started to work with us quite well. I think everybody understands the problems that they confronted, which were not of their making but were the result of lax rules and other factors.

"Now there has been quite a lot of movement. When I was at WADA we were trying to set up an anti-doping agency there nationally. We are trying to do a kind of parallel line with Kenya, in terms of changing attitudes. And we have put a lot of effort and time into information, education and also ensuring that the athletes who might be tempted to do something are under some sort of scrutiny as well.

"Ethiopia are on the watch list too. We currently have five countries on it. And there are ones slightly below it. We are getting together a report on that subject for our next board meeting. Because some of the countries have done pretty darn well and they don't need to be there anymore. Some haven't, and some haven't lower down, so we just need to keep an eye on that. 

"We can test anybody. But we've got limited resources, so we have to prioritise. There are many, many great runners in Kenya, where running is their number one sport and almost their number one past-time. 

"But they don't necessarily all compete in IAAF events. They might compete in road running. So that led to our initiative with road running. And what we have done in terms of making a Memorandum of Understanding with the road running circuit, with the intention of ensuring that the spread of athletes who are covered is much greater.

"It entails those who are responsible for world marathons and the road running circuit around the world are all going to be putting in some money to a programme that we are going to run. That will be coming next year."

At an earlier press conference here, Howman was asked, in fairly spikey fashion, about how independent the AIU was from the sports administrators upon whom it may be necessary to pass judgement? Did they stay in the same hotels, did they travel together, did they dine together? Were they all on the same "gravy train"?

Howman relished the opportunity to detail how, at every point, the AIU did not intersect or interact with said administrators. But he accepted as we spoke that it was a fair and important question.

"I don’t feel like I am the IAAF at all," he said. "Seb has been very strong on all this. I would speak to him - maybe twice a year? We report, under the rules. If there was anything really dramatic that I felt he had to have a heads-up on I would call him. Just out of courtesy. But I wouldn't call him until it was about to happen. We've got that working relationship. The Council respects what we do."

David Howman says he would speak to IAAF President Seb Coe twice a year ©Getty Images
David Howman says he would speak to IAAF President Seb Coe twice a year ©Getty Images

The situation was the same regarding Rune Andersen, head of the IAAF Task Force.

"I've known Rune for a long time," Howman said. "But I don't think I've spoken to him more than about twice in the last four years about the Task Force.

"We've taken a lot of pressure, I think, away from the IAAF, because they can say 'that's over there, that's what those guys do'. 

"And we've got to do that properly. But it's up to us to create our reputation. I don't blame anybody for questioning us."

And what of the future - where would Howman like the AIU to be, say, on the verge of the Paris 2024 Olympics?

"Doping is only one aspect of the challenges we have to overcome or confront," he said. "I think we are doing it pretty well in the way we are running our programme and I like to think we would be setting a good example for other sports and national anti-doping organisations. And hopefully we won't have to do too much more work in relation to Russia, because that's taken up a lot of our time and expertise in terms of past cases.

"So we are looking at other areas of challenge, like betting. I don't think we understand betting yet. People very casually say, 'People don't bet on athletics'. 

"I don't know how much you have delved into the area of the unregulated betting world. I've been engaged with a lot of the gambling stuff within the Asian region that will provoke and provide problems.

"There are other issues such as the grooming of athletes - using athletes for betting purposes, not in terms of affecting results necessarily, but allowing money to be laundered by criminal gangs. Which is what's going on now.

"We have to look at the preying on athletes, and how some people get to use the athletes. At some stage the athletes are overcome. So you have got all these mental health issues you see around the place in the world of sport and the world generally that come from stress or pressure or whatever you want to call it. 

"If it's imposed on you because you know you have done something which you know is wrong, you can just see add-on effects. So it's a welfare issue I suppose. But it's also an integrity issue. I don't want to overstate it, but I think that's an issue that needs to be looked at.

"I think there are issues relating to corruption in general that we all know about, and we are going to learn a lot more in the coming months, that might need to be dealt with in advance of the Paris Games to make sure it doesn't happen again.

"And then you've got the issues that we are somewhat concerned about of age manipulation in the under-20s and the under-17s. It's an integrity issue. The big issue still will be doping - but it won't be the only issue.

"So going forward I would hope to see in the area of doping the implementation of the better testing methods we have touched on. And I would like to see people starting to think that it wasn't worth taking the risk."