Sunday 26 May 2019

'Genuine athletes are being done out of it'

With doping back in the spotlight, some involved in athletics are calling for tougher punishments for cheats, writes Cathal Dennehy

Indeed Jamaica has been under duress after Asafa Powell (above), Veronica Campbell-Brown and Sherone Simpson tested positive
Indeed Jamaica has been under duress after Asafa Powell (above), Veronica Campbell-Brown and Sherone Simpson tested positive

Cathal Dennehy

At a time when the credibility of athletics hangs right on the precipice between crisis and oblivion, there was further cause for concern last week when the World Anti-Doping Agency released its testing report for 2012 – a report that paints the efforts of the Jamaican Anti-Doping Agency's work at best as unsatisfactory, at worst as wilfully apathetic.

The report brings further suspicion on Jamaican athletes ahead of the World Championships, which start in Moscow on Saturday. It highlights the lack of effectiveness of many anti-doping systems across various sports, and shows Jamaica tested its all-conquering athletes a total of just 59 times during 2012, a rate well below that of its international counterparts.

That has raised further concerns that while the Caribbean island may be the fastest nation on Earth, their anti-doping efforts continue to proceed at a crawl. Chaired by Dr Herb Elliott, the Jamaican Anti-Doping Commission conducted a total of just 106 tests on all its sportspeople in 2012 – a year in which they won almost a third of the medals on offer in the sprint events at the Olympics. The number of tests conducted was lower than Chile, Luxembourg, and Ecuador. In contrast, the oft-criticised Russians conducted 15,854 tests, Germany 8,077, while the UK did 5,971.

"It's a sham, I'm not sure if there's many other ways to describe it," says Irish elite sprint coach John Coghlan. "For a nation to be that dominant, and to be doing such little testing, how can you take them seriously?"

Indeed Jamaica has been under duress after Asafa Powell, Veronica Campbell-Brown and Sherone Simpson tested positive in recent months. Victor Conte – the American who supplied steroids to multiple Olympic athletes at the now-infamous Balco laboratory – said last week he believed the country is operating a state-sponsored doping programme, a claim strongly rejected by Dr Elliott.

Irish athletes, meanwhile, face one of the most stringent testing systems in the world. The Irish Sports Council's anti-doping branch conducted 895 tests on our elite sportspeople last year. There were eight positive tests.

Three members of a tug of war team and a soccer player tested positive for the banned stimulant methylhexaneamine. A cyclist, a motorsport participant and two weightlifters tested positive for cannabis, while an unnamed coach was banned for 27 months for administering a prohibited substance to a boxer.

John Treacy, chief executive of the ISC, believes their anti-doping programme compares well internationally. "If you look at the testing in the various disciplines, we're right up there in terms of a lot of the sports and types of tests we're doing," he says. "If you look at the biological passport testing in athletics, we carried out 49 tests in 2012, which is a pretty high number when you compare it to the UK, which carried out 55."

"We spent €840,000 last year on the anti-doping front. That's down a bit but we're targeting it better. It's more intelligent. You're developing relationships with the various other statutory agencies in the country that might be able to pass on information. We share information like blood passport data with the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) and the UCI (International Cycling Union)."

When looking across sports, it's no surprise that athletics and cycling, given their history, are two of the most tested sports – racking up 27,836 and 20,624 tests respectively worldwide. Football was the most tested sport in 2012, with 28,008 total tests. In contrast, tennis – a sport where the suggestions of a growing doping problem so far have been mostly anecdotal – conducted just 3,483 tests. The murmurings of a doping problem in tennis were given added volume last week with the news that the Serb Viktor Troicki, a former world No 12, was banned for 18 months for refusing to provide a blood sample at the Monte Carlo Masters in April. Just two days later, reports emerged that former world No 9 Marin Cilic had failed a drugs test in May.

Despite the increased emphasis in recent years on physical conditioning and the emphasis on hitting long drives in golf – not to mention Gary Player's assertion in 2007 that he knew "for a fact that some golfers are doing it" – there were just 545 doping tests conducted on golfers worldwide last year, less than two per cent of the amount carried out in athletics.

When it comes to athletics, Coghlan feels that the sport has paid the price for exposing its cheats, but the governing body could still be doing much more to eradicate the problem. "The IAAF are so soft," he says. "They're not really targeting the network behind the athletes. I'm not saying all coaches are behind it, but there is a network there. John Smith, for example, is and has been involved with a lot of athletes with huge suspicion surrounding them. He has been connected to the BALCO drugs scandal where it was shown he had meetings with one of the main drug suppliers about working with his athletes. A number of athletes he's coached have had positive drug tests."

According to the report, anabolic agents still lead the way as the drug of choice in most sports, even though their use is now more detectable. Among anabolic agents, over half of the positives were for an elevated testosterone (T/E) ratio, which supports Conte's recent claim that the method of choice for dopers in strength, speed and power events is now micro-dosing with fast-acting testosterone creams. However, a new test, the Carbon Isotope Ratio (CIR), is able to identify the presence of synthetic testosterone in the body for up to two weeks, and has a catch rate five times higher than the traditional T/E Ratio. The issue with the new method, though, is one of expense, the CIR test costing approximately €300 per test.

Treacy agrees that the use of the CIR method, which is implemented in certain situations by the Sports Council, is crucial to catching cheats. "We test first using the T/E ratio test, and if the ratio is high, then we will use the CIR method. It's for target tests that we use the CIR."

In endurance events, the use of the traditional drug of choice for the past two decades, Erythropoietin (EPO), is on the decline, with just 45 of the 25,408 (1 in 564) of the tests for it worldwide coming back positive for the now easily-detectable blood booster. However, speculation is rife that an undetectable replacement has been found in the form of growth arrest-specific 6, a protein which stimulates the secretion of EPO in the body and has long been considered as a replacement for EPO in the treatment of anaemia.

Anywhere you find clinical trials examining new, potentially undetectable blood-boosting products, you will likely find a handful of endurance athletes and their entourages, searching for the latest product hot off the pharmaceutical shelf – the latest thing, no matter how unsafe or unproven, to get an edge.

Internationally, Treacy knows that many countries fall far short of what is required, some through a lack of investment, others through a wilful lack of interest. "Some countries are not as strategic as they should be," he says. "There are countries, specifically the African countries, where funding for anti-doping programmes is a huge issue. The World Anti-Doping Agency have regional offices, though, and along with the IAAF they've tested quite a few of the Kenyans and Ethiopians this year. In fairness to the Irish athletes, when we're knocking on the door, they realise why we're there, that we're there to ensure they compete on an even playing field. They get on with it."

While catching athletes is one thing, providing an adequate deterrent to ward off potential cheats is quite another, and John Coghlan believes more drastic changes are required if athletics is to truly move forward. "I think there should be criminal charges brought against the athletes for fraud," he says. "It would make people think twice about it if they knew they could end up in jail. Genuine athletes have been hard done by. It sickens me. There's lots of athletes out there putting their life into it, and they're being done out of it. Derval O'Rourke is the obvious example."

For now, Coghlan continues his coaching work with some of Ireland's top sprinters such as Steven Colvert and Brian Murphy, trying to remain positive and instilling in his charges that world-class times can be run clean. "I think people often use doping as an excuse why they can't become world class," he says. "I think you can break 10 seconds for 100m clean, I think you can break 20 seconds for 200m clean, definitely. People say that they're all at it at the top level and that's not true either."

A week from today, the marquee event of the World Championships, the one facing the biggest fight of its life to remain credible, will take place in Moscow, and Coghlan is hopeful that he can believe what he sees in the men's 100m. "Maybe this is a turning point," he says. "I'd much rather see a World Championships 100m being won in 9.9 and knowing they're all clean. It shouldn't be about records or fast times. I think people would like to know what they're watching is real."

Sunday Independent

The Left Wing: Leinster's succession plan, Munster's missing piece and the art of contract negotiations

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport