Sunday 24 March 2019

Authorities lack stomach to chase the cheats

New figures about doping puts spotlight on WADA's motives and official figures, writes John O'Brien

Tyson Gay recently tested positive for a banned substance
Tyson Gay recently tested positive for a banned substance

John O'Brien

IT is 30 years now since an unexpectedly tough anti-doping regime was introduced at the Pan-American Games in Caracas, Venezuela, and as an unprecedented number of athletes fell victim to stricter controls, the sporting world had its first major doping controversy.

As the Games descended into farce Ed Moses, the great American 400m hurdler, claimed that 50 per cent of US world-class athletes were using performance-enhancing substances.

At the time Moses' supposedly outlandish claim was given short shrift. Although testing was practically unheard of in track and field events in America, PEDS were still largely viewed as a shadowy evil widely used elsewhere, but not in the land of the free and the brave. It was easier to cast your glance outward – to communist East Germany and their comrades across the border in Russia – than to look inward and contemplate the dark truth facing you.

Moses merely asked the question we have always wanted to know. How prevalent is doping among athletes at the top end of international sport? It is a question sporting authorities and sponsors have generally resisted asking for fear of the sobering response it might elicit. They imagine, like Colonel Jessup in A Few Good Men, that it would contain a truth the world would not be able to handle.

As things stand, less than two per cent of all the thousands of tests examined annually by the World Anti-doping Agency (WADA) return positive results. As a barometer of the level of cheating, however, this seems hopeless. There are those who argue that the true figure is likely to be close to five per cent, but to believe this, we would need to be blessed with the most wildly optimistic of personalities.

We are edging closer to the truth, however. In a report leaked to the New York Times last week, details of a survey were published, showing that at least 29 per cent of athletes participating at the 2011 World Athletics Championships had used PEDs in the previous 12 months. The corresponding figure for the 2011 Pan-Arab Games was 45 per cent. Even worse, three of the research team told the paper that WADA had prevented them from publishing the findings.

It's not difficult to guess why, of course. A staple of WADA's anti-PEDs policy has always been to convince us that doping was the preserve of a minority of cynical individuals, that the vast majority still competed pure. We always suspected differently, though, and now we know. Doping is a far more routine, banal practice than the authorities care to admit. Not quite of 'everyone's at it' proportions, but still closer than most of us would ever have bargained for.

The depressing thing is that there is no silver lining here, no morsel of hope for a brighter future. Because the researchers used a randomised response method, rather than hard science, to reach their findings, there are those willing to downgrade their significance. Yet you wonder what motive the 2,000 athletes surveyed anonymously would have had to lie. If anything, the true level of doping, as the researchers concluded, is likely to be significantly higher.

There's an eternal sporting paradox at play here. The news comes as a shock to us, yet we're not unduly surprised at the same time. Because we know the stomach to confront the true extent of the problem is weak. "There's no general appetite to undertake the effort and expense of a successful effort to deliver doping-free sport," Dick Pound, former WADA chairman, said in May. "Nobody wants to catch anybody. There's no incentive."

The truth is that tackling it properly requires a steep change in culture, not just among those peddling or taking illegal substances, but among those chasing them too. The introduction of biological passports will help, of course, as will stiffer four-year bans for cheaters, but this isn't nearly enough.

It would be nice if our politicians recognised the cultural importance of sport worldwide and devoted the kind of money and resources needed to get a grip on the problem. But that, in reality, is a forlorn hope.

Perhaps it's as much as we can do to continuously shame those in authority – in WADA, the IAAF, FIFA, wherever – into weeding out the cheaters among their ranks and calling them out when they fail conspicuously in their duty, as they so often do. There's a critical message that needs to be delivered to the heads of all sports: track and field, tennis, golf, baseball, football. No exceptions.

If they're not catching drugs cheats by the barrelful, and dispensing long bans, then they are either incompetent or just not doing their jobs. Either way, it's time to stand aside and let someone else have a go.

Sunday Independent

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