Nick Butler

"Can't we just stop cheating at sport," wrote International Olympic Committee (IOC) member James Tomkins in a despairing Twitter post yesterday. 


It seemed an unusually honest plea from a sports official and an admission, of sorts, that, for all the rhetoric, there is still little they can do to curb some of the worst excesses.

The former rower and Athletes’ Commission member was speaking not about doping per se but in the aftermath of the ball tampering scandal which is rocking Australian cricket to its core.

The incident, which is particularly shocking for its pre-meditated nature and for the apparent involvement of, if not the whole team, then at least a good chunk of it, has become a huge story well beyond Australia. In Britain it even achieved the rare feat last night of knocking Brexit and Russian spy scandals off the top of the BBC news…

Former United States Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren's much trumpeted comment that he read the sports pages of newspapers first because they focused on human accomplishments and achievements while the front pages focused on human failing has never seemed more hollow.

The bad tempered and hostile nature of the whole Australia v South Africa series has overshadowed the high-quality cricket actually being played.

Perhaps we should return to George Orwell's rather less celebrated quote about how "serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words, it is war minus the shooting".

The sentiments of Tomkins' question/statement were on my mind as I attended the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Symposium in Lausanne last week.

Australian media coverage slammed cricket captain Steve Smith after he admitted culpability in ball tampering ©Getty Images
Australian media coverage slammed cricket captain Steve Smith after he admitted culpability in ball tampering ©Getty Images

I had never managed to attend a major WADA event before and have usually covered doping issues more from an IOC and International Federation (IFs) standpoint, so was interested to detect how they felt the fight against the best-known form of sporting cheating was going.

There was certainly a lot of good rhetoric on a busy day one, the only day us media folk were allowed to attend, as we were told over and over how the Russian scandal exposed flaws in the anti-doping system but that they are now being addressed.

WADA director general Olivier Niggli unveiled a four-year plan in which WADA will boost its funding and enhance its approaches to tackling compliance, investigations - there are 10 currently ongoing, including one against China - research and laboratory monitoring. We then learned about a new Athletes' Charter due to be integrated into the WADA Code focusing on areas such as freedom of speech, i.e. allowing athletes to speak-up about concerns without fear of being punished and removed from team, and the eradication of the current inequalities in testing between different parts of the world. "Why should an athlete start a race knowing they have been tested 20 times but worrying that their rival in the next lane has only been once?" we were told.

The room was full of representatives from both IFs and National Anti-Doping Organisations (NADOs) but the atmosphere was largely cordial and constructive.

I was told how the constant talk about the "fox guarding the hen-house" is unfair and that sporting bodies can largely be trusted to be independent because they realise it is in their best interest to protect their reputation.

I was also told that it was wrong to think that doctors working with cheats were still ahead of the anti-doping side although this was interspersed with the message that, with more funding, WADA can take the lead further.

As always, time spent "inside the bubble" in sport leaves you feeling quite optimistic and it is only when you step back out that you think differently.

WADA did identify challenges hindering the fight against doping ©WADA
WADA did identify challenges hindering the fight against doping ©WADA

The Russia situation, first of all, has not been resolved and still dominated all media coverage arising from the Symposium. 

It was discussed at length during a panel debate but this only really got interesting late on when a delegate from Barbados asked what will ultimately happen if Russia does not accept the McLaren Report. Even then Yury Ganus, the Russian Anti-Doping Agency director general who I was left feeling slightly sorry for because he seemed so hamstrung in what he could and couldn't say, somehow avoided answering the question.

Neither side want to lose face and a compromise/fudge to avoid either doing so has not yet been conjured. And Russia are still refusing to allow access to electronic or physical records from the Moscow Laboratory, if they still exist. They say this is to avoid impeding some sort of "criminal investigation" but it appears more likely a way to preserve their ability to maintain "plausible deniability".

Political tensions also still exist within the anti-doping landscape. It was interesting, for instance, how both the IOC Athletes' Commission and WADA/Fairsport panels seem to be compiling different Athletes' Charters because they cannot agree to do one together. 

Divisions were exposed further when WADA vice-president Linda Helleland awoke the 900 delegates from a mid-afternoon slumber with an explosive address attacking the way Russia were dealt with "before, during and after" Pyeongchang 2018. Increased funding will only be achieved, she added for good measure, if they can bring back trust and credibility. 

The memo about a cordial atmosphere had clearly got lost in the post and her speech went down with sporting observers like an anti-doping inspector paying a surprise visit to a remote altitude training camp. I was told she was "incoherent", "arrogant", a "political opportunist" and "pandering to her audience back home [in Norway]". Others, though, described her as fearless, accurate and a breath of fresh air in an atmosphere of stifling conformity.

I was in two minds about this. Helleland clearly is a politician and knows how to court publicity. She apparently was meant to speak on day two but insisted upon a change when learning media would not be present then. There was a lot of substance in what she said, however, and questions can certainly be posed about the reforms so far.

The IOC do not appear to have found a rival public authorities candidate for the WADA Presidency next year yet, but rest assured they will do so eventually. A Helleland Presidency would be their worst nightmare because they would lose control. 

I still share her implied concerns about the independence of certain IFs and NADOs alike. We never really got to the bottom of Jamaican sprinters failing tests but facing no sanction for clenbuterol at Beijing 2008 and there was also the suspiciously quick clearing of a North Korean member of the unified women’s ice hockey team at Pyeongchang 2018.

Opinion was split on the speech of Linda Helleland at the WADA Symposium ©WADA
Opinion was split on the speech of Linda Helleland at the WADA Symposium ©WADA

The new International Testing Agency (nee. Independent Testing Authority) is thus a good idea to increase independence, if it actually does that, but too much about it is still up in the air to conclude either way so far.

There are also a lot of examples suggesting anti-doping authorities have still not caught up with the cheats, even if the gap is closing. There are also too many grey areas. WADA admitted, for instance, that they still have no “magic solution” to know if clenbuterol positives are due to doping or contaminated meat.

"Determined cheats will always be ahead," insists former Australian Sports Anti-Doping Agency head Richard Ings. "Not all ADOs are equally capable. Not all labs analyse to best practice. Not all DCO (doping control officers) do testing without notice. These are just a few of the weaknesses. Unless you plug all the holes the dopers will always be ahead."

Boxer Canelo Álvarez was swiftly cleared of wrongdoing earlier this month after explaining two failed drugs tests for high levels of clenbuterol at a Mexican training camp using the contaminated meat line. He has now been temporarily suspended by the Nevada State Athletic Commission but don’t bet against him being cleared in time to fight Gennady Golovkin in a Las Vegas blockbuster on May 5.

We also heard last week how four figures at the centre of the 12-year-old Operation Puerto doping scandal will face no further punishment from the Spanish Cycling Federation. We still don't know the names of athletes implicated in other sports.

This brings us back to Tomkins' question of why we cannot spot cheating in sport.

I do not know if Alvarez’s excuse is genuine but, in many cases, the risk of being caught is still outweighed by the rewards of getting away with it. There are plenty of people who would rather doping scandals just disappear rather than be exposed and testing standards in sports like football, tennis, boxing and rugby still seem low compared with ones that have already suffered scandals like athletics and cycling.

It is not just sporting bodies culpable but lawyers, public relations agents, sponsors, broadcasters, media and even the fans themselves who still turn up and cheer regardless of concerns.

The same can be said about other forms of cheating.

In fact, you could even argue that the factor which makes the Australian cricket scandal so big is how they swiftly admitted not only wrongdoing but that it had been collectively premeditated. They probably only did this in a naïve attempt to put their hands up and move on because they were caught red - or tape - handed, but it was at least different from the usual "deny, deny, deny" mentality.

It is perhaps more important to have more people like Helleland who are prepared to stand-up and criticise rather than those tinkering around the edges and allowing sport's underlying problems to continue.