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Is the anti-doping system as good as it could be?

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Tom Fordyce | 15:03 UK time, Wednesday, 13 July 2011

And so, after five weeks of microscopic time-management, 3am panics about pain-killers and energy drinks, emergency text updates and urinating in front of strange men, my time as the first journalist ever to be allowed inside the UK Anti-Doping whereabouts system is over.

What have I learned? Is the system fair on clean athletes and tough enough to deter cheats? What needs to be done to improve it? Can we really have faith in the great sporting performances that stir our hearts and lift our moods?

Syringe and small sample bottles at anti-doping laboratoryAthletes must submit samples out of competition as well as during championships

First, the one-hour issue: the requirement to specify where you'll be for an hour a day, seven days a week, for three months in advance. In a moment, the morals; first, the practicalities.

I'm a relatively well-organised individual. My time-keeping has improved with age and responsibility. For most of the month I found this part easy - 0700 to 0800, my flat. When I was elsewhere - covering cricket, visiting parents or friends - I notified the system in advance or by last-gasp text.

I also discovered how easy it is to go wrong.

Early last Thursday morning I drove down to Bath to do a piece with European 400m hurdles champion Dai Greene. Because I spent the night at my flat in London it didn't even occur to me that any update was required, not even when that 0700-0800 slot passed with me on the M4 somewhere between Reading and Swindon.

Had the testers come calling, I would have had a missed test clocked up against me. Three of those in 18 months and I'd be staring at a doping suspension and a life ban from the Olympics.

If I could make such an error once in five weeks, could a disorganised yet clean 19-year-old fresh into top-class sport do the same over a much longer time period? Almost certainly.

Now the ethical part. Is it fair to ask an athlete to provide such detailed information (training locations and times also have to be logged for every day of the year) to a group of people they have never met?

In an ideal world, no. But sadly we don't live in an ideal world.

Therefore, to ensure that fans can truly believe in what they see - and that those who cheat clean athletes out of medals and moolah are more likely to get caught - it seems to me that on balance it is a sacrifice worth making.

What about the online Adams programme (Anti-Doping Administration and Management System) that athletes have to use to update their whereabouts?

Even those who work with it every day find it clunky. It looks old-fashioned, takes time to understand and doesn't work well on mobile web-browsers. Neither is there a smart phone app which, when you look at the age demographic of most athletes, doesn't make much sense.

UKAD does offer a great deal of help to athletes who struggle with it though - long tutorials, a 24-hour helpline, and constant text reminders if you've failed to return all of the required information.

But given that Adams is designed and controlled by the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) rather than UKAD, I called its director-general David Howman, ready to give him my feedback.

"We should have a new version by November," he told me. "It'll be far more user-friendly, far easier to update, more intuitive. It has a user-guide built into the system, and I think everyone will be pretty pleased with it. The frustrating thing has been how long it's taken to put into operation."

What about the smart phone app?

"That'll be down the line. We're certainly looking at applications, but we need to make sure firstly (that) it works, and we've got quite a few other projects related to Adams and the whereabouts system that have a high priority."

Which brings us neatly to security. One of the best functions of Adams is the ability to change your whereabouts information by text, right up to 60 seconds before your assigned hour begins.

But it is worrying that you don't have to answer any security questions or enter any passwords or PINs before being able to do so. As long as you have the UKAD text number - and every athlete does - you could text in claiming to be anyone, changing the details of a rival's hour from any mobile you like.

Howman said: "We're aware of the loophole, and we're trying to close it."

Even those British athletes who unequivocally support UKAD's system have one big question: while supporters can trust their performances, do their big rivals from other countries have to go through the same level of testing?

"You can pretty easily bracket it into the developed nations and the developing nations," said Howman.

"You look at the developed nations and they have the resources, the nous, the history, and you don't need to worry about them quite as much. We've looked at the developing nations very carefully, and we've got a regional development programme in place where eight or nine or 10 countries group together to form an anti-doping programme. We've got 15 of them throughout the world, so 122 countries where we do rely on resource-sharing.

"So obviously you're going to have a different level of programme in those regions and anti-doping bodies than you do in the UK. When you're a global body you just have to accept that that's the way of the world. The money is not shared equally, so you're going to get more spent in some countries than others.

"What we have to try to ensure is that an elite athlete, no matter where he or she might train or compete, is subject to testing. That's what we try to achieve, and I think we're getting much closer to that."

How close? Howman then said something which, while honest, will alarm those clean athletes who dislike the current system but endure it as the price to be paid for drug-free sport.

"The sophisticated doper can probably beat the scientific system. But they can't always beat the police. What we have to do is plug into existing operations like police and Customs, where those guys are in the business of gathering information and evidence about doping."

Does the anti-doping movement have the resources to fight the battles ahead?

"You always want more funding, and you always want to do more. We only have 55 people in our team, but I wouldn't like to be a complainer. We get $26m (£16m) a year in funding, and I think we use it very wisely.

"A quarter of our budget goes on research. We could do more of that - and make sure the testing was better - if (we) had more money."

In the last week of my experiment, news breaks that three of the four Indian athletes in their women's Commonwealth gold medal-winning 4x400m relay team have tested positive for steroids.

To me it feels both deeply depressing - that win, and the Indian reaction to it, had been the best moment of the entire Games - and a vindication of everything the whereabouts system is trying to do.

Does Howman feel pleased those athletes were caught, or sad that people continue to damage the sports we love with their drug-taking?

"I don't get paid to have feelings," he told me flatly. "I operate from a position that, if there are people out there cheating, then the clean athlete benefits from the catching of those cheats.

"If you look at the job we have to do, it's all about supporting the clean athlete. I'd like to think there are many more of those than there are cheats. So any time anyone has broken the rules, I like to see them brought to justice."

Investigating the anti-doping system has been fascinating, frightening and illuminating in equal measure. There's a lot more about it that I'm keen to explore in the coming months.

In the meantime, though, I have one last obligation to fulfil: write to UK Athletics to officially notify them that my brief career as an international shot-putter is over, and that I no longer wish to be considered for national selection.

Once that happens, I am taken off the whereabouts system for good, or at least until I decide to make a return to top-level competition.

Aspiring shot-putters across Britain: you can breathe again. The field is yours.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Tom,
    Would you have missed that test whilst on the M4 if your career depended on it? We know you attempted to replicate it closely but you did not have a great deal to lose from missing that test, certainly not compared with some prominent British athletes especially.

    Also, what is the medal count for India at the CWG now? Presumably with a number of failed tests they have lost a significant number of golds.

    The fact that it is significantly harder for athletes from some nationalities to cheat than others is a real problem. The testing procedures themselves create an uneven playing field. Not to mention the punishments and the culture differentials in relation to treatment to cheating athletes.

  • Comment number 2.

    Like all these schemes the honest carry them out properly and the dishonest find ways around them. Frankly though after reading your article I would not be an athlete being monitored 24/7 like your some kind of criminal until proven innocent is a serious axe to have over your head particularly for 16-22 year olds perhaps we should lock them up in some kind of Italian looking village in Wales and have loud speakers giving instructions?

  • Comment number 3.

    Howman highlights the disparity between developed and developing nations with regards to resources for testing. Could this disparity be extended to the drugs themselves? Do you think it is the case that athletes from developing nations would not have access to the 'best'/as yet 'undetectable' drugs and athletes from developed nations would? Or do you think the best athletes from developing nations, eg. Ethiopia and Kenya, would still have access to 'designer drugs' if they so wished?

    I don't in any way wish to suggest that clean athletes should rest easy that athletes from developing nations, if they do cheat, will be caught because they aren't taking the latest drugs. Just as we can not be sure that countries with the most advanced and robust anti-doping systems will catch every cheat because the testers can only test for the drugs they are aware of. However one would assume that the development of testing procedures and access to drugs would increase as a country developed, or is this just me being naïve?

    http://thebigblogofsport.wordpress.com

  • Comment number 4.

    I've been following your blog, and enjoyed the insight into what athletes have to endure in order to 'prove they are innocent'.

    One question though still stands out for me, and you pointed it out at the end.

    "Once that happens, I am taken off the whereabouts system for good, or at least until I decide to make a return to top-level competition."

    What would happen if you resigned as an athlete and took a 2-5 year sabbatical ('due to injury' for example) - only to return with a new massive frame and bulging muscles, beat your PB by several metres and suddenly the previously underwhelming Tom Fordyce is competing for a Shot medal in 2016 Olympics? (completely hypothetical of course)

    Maybe I am too suspicious though. :)





  • Comment number 5.

    Ian I believe that if you retire & then make a comeback you have to be in the Anti Doping system for a minimum period before competing. Of course there are the potential longer term benefits of taking drugs which nobody's really done any detailed research into & this would also be a pertinent issue for athletes returning from a doping ban.

  • Comment number 6.

    I've been fascinated by your blogs on this, Tom - thank you!

    Re the texting in being open to abuse - surely it wouldn't be too difficult to adopt a Twitter like system, where your mobile number has to be registered and then can only update your own 'account'?

  • Comment number 7.

    To Mancun Ian: In most countries you have to undergo anti-doping tests 6 months prior to doing a comeback. That's why a tennis player was not allowed to participate in one of the Grand Slam tournament (can't remember if it was French Open or Wimbledon, but most likely French Open..)

  • Comment number 8.

    Considering that the drugs of choice at the moment are HGH and EPO, which can only be detected by random blood tests, are random blood tests actually carried out (in and out of season)? what about other countries - are their athletes randomly blood tested?

  • Comment number 9.

    I enjoyed your blog of this Tom. One quirk that I don't think was explored was masking agents - of which I'm sure any half sensible cheat would use to cover up their performance enhancing drug. From the tiny knowledge I have, the majority of masking agents, such as; diuretics take less than 24 hours to leave the system and therefore you can have the event of drugs cheats taking drugs the minute their 1 hour window is closed, for example, 08.01 and knowing that whatever they're taking will be out their system by 07.00 the next day.

    I don't think you need to be that sophisticated on the basis of that simple maths. The majority of athletes seem to get caught with diuretics or other, non-performance enhancing agents that can mask other drugs but do carry the same kind of penalty. That seems to infer that this would be quite a common and unsophisticated way of getting round the system.

    I agree with other posters that, seemingly, the only real way you're going to catch out any one with half a brain is by random testing - not testing wherebye you can schedule your cheating around it...

  • Comment number 10.

    I've only read the first few paragraphs, but feel one issue needs correction: you say that if you missed three tests you'd get a ban and a life-ban from the Olympics. Past evidence has proven this not to be the case. Kick up a fuss, moan a little, proclaim you'll take part for another country and they'll cancel the Olympic ban and let you in.

    All facts and all proven by past precedent. I'm not judging that athlete (views elsewhere make it clear how I feel), but the "three strikes and you're out" rule simply isn't enforced.

  • Comment number 11.

    Hugh, I belive though I may be wrong, a tester can turn up at any time for a random test it doesn't have to be in your allocated hour. It can be at training, competitions etc which is why you have to give note of all your training sessions and where they are.

  • Comment number 12.

    WHY DOES THE BBC CHOOSE TO IGNORE THE COPA AMERICA?

    Uruguay beat Peru in one semi final on Tuesday night but look at the BBC site and you wouldn't even know the tournament was taking place.

    If you want to know how Dumbarton got on in their friendly with Partick Thistle - no worries. Uruguay/Peru, from the continent that brought us Pele, Maradona, Alfredo de Stefano, Lionel Messi? Look elsewhere because you'll find nothing here!

    (Dumbarton beat Thistle 4-1)

  • Comment number 13.

    Tom, I don't have any pertinent remark to make but wanted to thank you for this series of blogs.

    I'm sure I'm not alone in finding them fascinating, insightful and providing a window through which to peer at the lives of our athletic heroes.

    Thank you.

 

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