David Owen

Events in Almaty make one apprehensive for Kazakhstan; they should also act as a warning for the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Six-and-a-half years ago in Kuala Lumpur, no fewer than 40 IOC members responded to a bravura performance from then Prime Minister Karim Massimov by voting for the former Kazakh capital to host the Winter Olympics – the Games which begin in just over three weeks’ time. Massimov has now, we read, been arrested, while Almaty has suffered days of violence with many deaths, even if some sort of calm appears to have been restored.

My aim here is not to criticise Almaty 2022’s 40 IOC backers, or even to suggest that they should have voted for its only rival, Beijing: members were not exactly spoilt for choice by the end of the race.

It is rather to underline the difficulty of peering into the future and pinpointing where exactly would be the best place to stage an Olympic and Paralympic Games seven years hence.

If, as former United Kingdom Prime Minister Harold Wilson once quipped, "a week is a long time in politics", how long does that make seven years in global affairs?

One might have hoped that with the mood turning against Olympic projects involving massive construction, the opportunity would have been taken to cut lead-times, making that key hosting decision less of a punt. Instead, based on the 2028 and 2032 Summer Games choices, the opposite is happening, with both Host-Cities named a mammoth 11 years before the event.

Now I would not suggest, even this far out, that Los Angeles or Brisbane carry Almaty-esque levels of political risk; they plainly don’t.

But equally, nowhere comes with stability and public contentment absolutely guaranteed; the further in advance you select the Host, the more time you are allowing for local conditions to somehow go off the rails.

By the same token, the later any hosting decision is made, within reason, the better the IOC’s chances of making a choice chiming well with the also hard-to-predict global Games-time zeitgeist.

Lots of Olympic interest groups no doubt prefer to know the future Hosting cycle a long way out. But few, if any, really need to know it.

Conversely, the potential extent of the damage a disastrous choice could wreak on the Olympic brand justifies the minimisation of risk in all ways possible, or so you would have thought – especially given the degree to which the current leadership in Lausanne has centralised power.

The world, it seems to me, is becoming a bit too unpredictable for the choosing of Hosts more than a decade ahead of time to be a good idea.

Almaty underlines this.

Former Kazakhstan Prime Minister Karim Massimov has been arrested ©Getty Images
Former Kazakhstan Prime Minister Karim Massimov has been arrested ©Getty Images

We knew that COVID had a big impact on drug testing in 2020; thanks to a new report, we have a better idea of exactly how big.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)’s 2020 Testing Figures Report was unveiled to a distracted public just before Christmas. I have seen little, if anything, written about it, but this very definitely does not mean it is bereft of interest.

The headline figure: a swingeing 46 per cent decline year-on-year in the number of samples analysed. There was also a decrease – from an already low 0.97 per cent to just 0.67 per cent - in the proportion of positive tests.

So, combining these two pieces of information means that the actual number of adverse analytical findings recorded in 2020 was not much more than one-third of the 2019 level at 1,009, down from 2,702.

For all that the pandemic posed a thorny and novel set of problems for the anti-doping system, this is not good news – unless you take the view that the nosedive in positive tests corresponds with a nosedive in athletes doping.

I thought it would be interesting to scrutinise a couple of elements in a bit more detail.

I looked first of all to see whether the decline in samples processed was relatively uniform across the 26 anti-doping laboratories which produced figures for both 2019 and 2020.

Focusing purely on urine samples, most of the busiest labs managed to keep their 2020 figures at above 60 per cent of year-earlier levels.

But there were some laggards: Rome, by my calculations, managed only 49.7 per cent and London 49.3 per cent. Rio – 34.1 per cent – was lower still; and so – much to my surprise – was the laboratory in Montreal, the very city where WADA is based.

Montreal processed 4,637 urine samples in 2020, according to the new report, down from more than 14,000 in 2019. I calculated this 2020 figure at just 32.9 per cent of the 2019 level, so below one-third.

There was also a sharp drop-off in the number of out-of-competition blood tests analysed in Olympic and Winter Olympic sports in 2020, compared with 2019. 

Swimming was one of the worst-performing sports when comparing the number of drugs test from 2019 to 2020 ©Getty Images
Swimming was one of the worst-performing sports when comparing the number of drugs test from 2019 to 2020 ©Getty Images

Once again, I wondered whether year-on-year declines were relatively uniform from sport to sport, or whether on the contrary, some held up markedly better than others. What I found was a large and rather disconcerting range.

Cycling, to name one much-tested sport, was among the better performers, with the number of out-of-competition blood tests performed in 2020 just under three-quarters of the 2019 level, at 74.4 per cent.

Skiing managed 69 per cent, while much-scrutinised weightlifting chipped in with 65 per cent. Athletics was rather less impressive at 53.8 per cent, according to my scribblings.

Aquatics suffered one of the steepest drop-offs of all, managing to attain only 25.85 per cent of 2019 levels for out-of-competition blood tests. Of Summer and Winter Olympic sports, only ice hockey (24.5 per cent), tennis (22.9 per cent) and volleyball (21.2 per cent) suffered even sharper falls.

I had imagined that maybe richer sports would have managed to keep this particular show on the road most effectively in the trying conditions, but the figures did not appear to bear this out.

Football, for example, managed a – to my mind – decidedly unimpressive 38.2 per cent of its 2019 figure, placing it 23rd among Summer Olympic sports.

These discrepancies from sport to sport are so marked that I would like to think they will be looked at. Some sports, clearly, are at relatively low risk from doping; in others, there may well be solid explanations for why 2020 out-of-competition blood testing levels dropped off particularly steeply.

But the range among individual sports is such that it is tempting to conclude that some may have been trying harder than others.

I would appreciate reassurance that this was not the case – and I would think there are plenty of Olympic athletes who would appreciate it too.