PtG Article 30.10.2007

Expanding the anti-doping arsenal?

Will WADA’s revised code make the agency quicker out of the blocks in the fight against drug cheats?

Play the Game’s appraisal of the current state of doping continued with an examination of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)’s revised code, which is due to be approved next month. The code, which has been approved by 570 sporting bodies and 191 governments, lays out basic mandatory standards that, said WADA Director General, David Howman, remain unaltered in the new document

Howman presented the main revisions to the code and spoke about the review process related to the changes. He began his presentation by lamenting the fact that without losing any of it’s funding, WADA has suffered a 15% budget loss due to the decline of the US dollar. He also pointed out that WADA now gathers evidence from a variety of sources. US athlete Marian Jones, he said, was exposed through the work of a partner law enforcement agency, not through positive testing. WADA is constantly increasing incentives for athletes to come forward and confess to doping use, he added.

The new code is the result of a wide system of consultation, he said, but it will mean no dilution of its principles of strict liability. Main changes include greater flexibility in the issue of some sanctions such as those involving non-amphetamine stimulants, and a tightening of the rules regarding missed tests. Perceived variations on sanctions for missed tests will also be standardised. Revisions will also be made to the therapeutic use exemption process, meaning athletes must show a full medical file, not just a doctor’s note, when applying for an exemption. Other changes include a new definition of the word “athlete”, new mandatory education programs for national bodies, and a compulsory provisional suspension for athletes after an initial positive sample. A mechanism will also be introduced threatening consequences for entire teams if two athletes or more test positive, and an international standard for data protection will be proposed.

Science, he pointed out, is not the answer to everything. Cheaters don’t stand still. There are now forty different varieties of EPO, for example - which is why WADA is constantly examining new ways of gathering evidence related to the use of such drugs.

Professor Barrie Houlihan of the UK’s Loughborough University applauded WADA’s achievements to date before pointing to three central issues in the new code which he felt needed more work - the treatment of young athletes, standard penalties and therapeutic use exemptions.

Increased flexibility in the issuance of penalties, he feared, could dilute the principle of “strict liability”. He was also concerned that the revised code “says little or is silent” with regard to a host of questions regarding minors and doping.

However, Houlihan saved his main criticism for the new therapeutic use exemption policy, which he called a “disaster waiting to happen”. Under the new wording, he said, the presence of certain drugs will be permitted if an athlete can demonstrate that a “significant impairment to health” will occur if the substance is not used, and the substance provides “no additional enhancement (beyond) a return to normal health". The terms “normal health” and “significant impairment”, he stated, both need to be defined with greater clarity.

He acknowledged the difficulties of ensuring compliance with the code, and urged the creation of instruments to ensure sporting bodies remain in compliance other than the “blunt instrument” of Olympic exclusion. He also spoke of the difficulties of maintaining commitment to the code. Surely, he stated, we should not rely on doping scandals to keep the issue on the agenda of governments and the front page of newspapers. In addition, he said, measures to criminalise doping are often little more than a “quick fix” providing limited results.