Book Review: Drugs test that sport is failing

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The Independent Online
On Tuesday, in Lausanne, the International Olympic Committee will host a world conference on Doping in Sport. The timing could not be more unfortunate; any lingering faith in a movement which sold its soul to the corporate devil long ago has been all but eradicated by the recent revelations of corruption. The IOC have to clean up their own pleasure palace before turning their attention to flushing out the dopers.

To coincide with the conference, the Council of Europe have rushed through Professor Barrie Houlihan's state-of-the-art survey on drugs in sport (Council of Europe Publishing, pounds 14.95). It makes genuinely depressing reading. After nearly 100 years of doping in sport, stretching back to the death of the cyclist Arthur Linton from an overdose of drugs in 1886, there is no sign that the authorities are any closer to coming to grips with the problem. So carefully do sports' governing bodies have to tread over the legal minefield that David Moorcroft, the chief executive of the newly formed UK Athletics, was bending over backwards to defend Doug Walker, the European 200m champion who failed a test last month. "We have to be fair to the athlete," he repeated. Quite so. But his first priority is to defend his sport.

The reaction of the UCI, the governing body of cycling, in the wake of the drug-infested 1998 Tour de France gives even less cause for hope. The symbol of their new crackdown on drugs should be a brush and a piece of carpet. Alex Zulle, one of the discredited Festina team, was banned until May when he will return nicely refreshed for the next Tour. Chris Boardman, one cyclist beyond reproach, believes that drug-taking will only be tackled at source once the risks outweigh the rewards. That means, on the one hand, sponsors withdrawing support for individuals and teams caught using drugs; on the other, more intensive blood sampling and harsher penalties. That is a more productive way forward than escalating the combat between chemists.

Houlihan's approach is understandably academic. He looks at the causes of increased drug use in sport, views it within the context of rising drug use in society as a whole, charts anti-doping policies and highlights the fragmentary nature of their implementation. His conclusions are alarming. "There is substantial evidence of a lack of political will among some governments and sports bodies underlying public protestations of support for drug-free sport," he writes. As evidence of double standards, he points to persistent allegations of unreported positives and of reported positives at Games where no action has been taken. Financial gain has long since replaced nationalism as the prime cause of drug use, but poor procedures, often down to underfunding, have undermined the authority of the regulators and fostered a growing assertiveness in athletes. Developing a worldwide inventory of banned drugs would be a start.

As Houlihan also points out, there is some progress. A pounds 1.8m project aimed at developing a test to identify growth hormones has been jointly funded by the IOC and the European Union. The 1994 Lausanne Agreement laid the groundwork for wider co-operation between national and international bodies. Yet harmonisation is still patchy, progress frustratingly slow. A quick digestion of this timely study might lend some momentum to the debate in Lausanne. But no one, least of all the cheats, should hold their breath.