Dick Pound used to say that athletes often have a level of intelligence below room temperature, and there’s an element of truth in that. Six months into my tenure as president of the World Anti-Doping Agency, you do sometimes have to wonder why people do what they do.
The only rational answer is that they are so totally devoted to what they’re doing that they will seek anything remotely possible that will help improve their performance whatever the legalities or ramifications.
I know it’s going back a few years now but take the case of Balco. It took the scientist Don Catlin three weeks to even work out what the substance (THG) was, let alone wonder about the potentially hazardous health effects for those taking it.
When that’s the situation you can’t help but ask athletes “what are you doing?”. It’s deeply worrying but that’s what we’re up against in the fight against doping. People have told me to be cynical in this job and you need that to a certain degree but I’ve always been a glass-half-full sort of person.
Sport has produced some of the most wonderful moments and those still outweigh the bad, the cheats that are out there. That’s not to suggest Wada is resting on its laurels – far from it in fact.
I wouldn’t say we’ve beaten the fight against doping – it would be naive to assume the battle can be entirely won. Wada plays a vital role in staying ahead of the cheats and providing a level playing field for the clean athletes.
On the balance of things, I think there is a sense that the good guys are making progress. The rules are better than ever before and the emphasis on the fight against doping is as good as it ever has been.
We’ve got our priorities right with the new World Anti-Doping Code, which comes into being on 1 January – it’s a matter of making sure we’re all singing from the same hymn sheet. There were 4,000 separate suggestions put to the code team and the fact it was almost unanimously accepted shows great unity in the fight against doping.
One of the key areas is to catch the entourage behind those doping. All the evidence suggests that if someone tests positive there is someone in the background. It might be a friend – and I use the term loosely – saying “take this, it’ll help” and naively athletes don’t question it. Or else you have something more sinister like the Balco situation at the other end of the spectrum, which was outrageous in the extreme.
With this we want athletes to be aware of the damage that doping can do but also the perils of associating with the wrong people too, hence there being a section in the code on prohibited association such as coaches and agents who have previously been caught up in doping.
There’s a sense there might be more whistleblowers coming forward. We rely on athletes to tell us what’s going on out there. Take the Tyson Gay case and his reduced sentence. It’s not something I can comment on directly with enquiries ongoing but it raises interesting issues.
The United States Anti-Doping Agency has cut his ban because of substantial assistance, and that is something we at Wada are satisfied with. Wada scrutinises all substantial assistance cases individually, and we do not accept a case if it sits outside the parameters of the code.
Often information is confidential, and you just have to allow a certain amount of leeway and hope details can be made public in future. Another key aspect of the Wada code moving forward is sport-specific analysis for anti-doping.
My predecessor John Fahey used to say “you don’t give chess players HGH”. This sport-specific approach is currently in a preliminary period of consultation. We have a working group liaising closely with the various federations and governing bodies to establish how best to deal with that.
It’s a code that’s ever-changing. Just take the example of xenon gas, which came to the public mindset at the Winter Olympics in Sochi. I was talking to one or two of the world’s leading scientists about it on an informal basis. It seemed to be that this was potentially dangerous and it was taken to the Wada list committee and put on the banned list at the earliest possible point.
People have a right to be cynical about sportsmen and women but rather than assume that we are in a never-ending fight against doping, in reality our goals are more aligned with protecting the clean athlete.Reuse content