PtG Article 06.06.2001

Fight Against Doping: Scientists Voice Doubts

According to some of the world's leading sports researchers, the war against sports drugs cannot be won.

The one-and-a-half-year-old WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) can never be a success. This, at least, is the opinion of Ivan Waddington, a leading sociologist and sports researcher at the University of Leicester.

"If WADA does its job properly, its findings will lead to a huge scandal that could destroy the lucrative business of international sport," he commented. "Therefore, WADA will not be allowed to succeed."

Waddington was one of a number of leading researchers who addressed a seminar on drugs in sport at the Norwegian University of Sport and Physical Education in Oslo on the 22-23 May 2001.

His sharp comments were made at a press conference in which five of the world's leading sports scientists put aside their academic inhibitions and launched a full-scale attack on the current state of play in the fight against performance-enhancing drugs.

Even though the delegates were unable to agree on everything, the prevailing atmosphere was one of pessimism.

Making drugs illegal is unfair on athletes

According to the scientists, those seeking to combat drug cheating are pitted against much too powerful adversaries. They are forced to do battle with - amongst others - a highly profitable medicine market, a sports industry obsessed with records and money, and a Western culture increasingly dependent on drugs. Often these drugs are not used to fight sickness, but are taken simply as a means of fitting in with society. Given the current situation, the researchers expressed scepticism over whether the sporting world has the will, or the capacity, to solve the problem itself.

"If you were to give the chemical industry the task of working out a programme to fight pollution, the whole thing would not work," pointed out sociologist Karl-Heinrich Bette from Germany. "The use of sports drugs is the most logical method of survival in a large system that is exclusively built upon winners and losers."

Sport's ruling bodies' failed attempts to halt doping have put a lot of pressure on governments across the world to intervene with legislation. In the last year, performance-enhancing drugs have been made illegal in Italy. However, in the opinion of the researchers, such a development is not fair.

"I do not support the idea of throwing sportsmen and women in prison," said Professor John Hoberman of the University of Texas. "If you place all the focus on the individual sportsperson, you remove responsibility from the trainers doctors, managers, and the whole system."

He was backed up by Barrie Houlihan, of England's Loughborough University, who is known for his book dealing with drugs in sport, entitled "Dying to Win."

"I doubt that there could be any instance in which legislation would help," claimed Houlihan. "Just think about the fight against other (recreational) drugs - this has proved to be a complete fiasco."

"It is a real contradiction. On the one hand, governments claim they want to join the fight against drugs in sport, while on the other hand they give extra rewards to those sporting associations winning most medals."

"In this context, the sports associations could help themselves by putting less weight on whether new records are set in their discipline," he continued, "But this is difficult, because the culture of setting new records is so deeply rooted."

Those who use illegal substances do not work alone, and therefore John Hoberman suggested penalising their "partners in crime."

"If anyone is going to be criminalised, we should start with the doctors, who are involved in almost everything related to doping," he said. "And one must look closer at the medical industry's potential for controlling what their products are used for."

Researchers question WADA's independence

One of the questions raised was this: if the fight is so one sided, why do so many scientists even bother to get involved? The answer lies in the fact that they - along with so many others - are deeply fascinated by the world of sport. As Ivan Waddington commented after airing his bleak prophesy about WADA, "I hope with all my heart that I am wrong."

Maybe he'll be so, but he is not alone in his scepticism.

Barrie Houlihan, who was the only researcher in Oslo to be actively involved with WADA, stated:

"WADA is a new institution that has raised a lot of hope and expectation."

However, it was pointed out that WADA's board is composed with the amount of faces from the so-called "Olympic family" (the IOC and international sports bodies) equalling the amount of government representatives.

And while Barrie Houlihan took a deep breath before answering a question about whether WADA can be called a truly independent body, the answer came from the his four colleagues on the podium as clear as a round of rifle shots:

"No." "No." "No." "No."

John Hoberman pointed to the fact that the IOC is payrolling WADA's first two years of existence. "This 15 million dollars is sure to give the IOC the right to half the seats on the board," he said, "but not the right for WADA to call itself independent."

Hoberman named a couple of people suspected of being soft on doping who are currently on the board of WADA, while Karl-Heinrich Bette noted that not one well-known doping critic has been allowed to join the board.

In addition, Ivan Waddington claimed that WADA's dependency on the large sports associations and the IOC could lead to a wholly incorrect perception of the scale of the problem.

"These people do not think we have a doping problem - they see it as a PR problem," he said. "I am afraid that WADA could see the image of sport as an issue, and therefore not take the doping question seriously enough."

WADA: So far, so good

When Houlihan himself came to speak, he was slightly less negative. Referring to the agency's first year of operations, he awarded WADA a grade of "so far so good".

"It had a sharp profile in Sydney, and as a result the sports bodies and the governments have been brought closer together," he said. "WADA has an agenda, and it has money. Now we must allow it time for it to produce results."

Despite the huge problems that exist, Houlihan pointed out that international elite sport has good reason to join the fight against the use of drugs.

"There is an interest in protecting sport as a brand," he said.

"This is something that sponsors pay a lot of money to be associated with - not least because it stands for something seen as worthwhile to society. WADA's reaction to nations or associations that choose to turn a blind eye to doping will prove decisive."

Barrie Houlihan agreed with his more sceptical colleagues that many pitfalls lie ahead:

"There is a danger that WADA could become a convenient apology for the fact that sport is not taking the necessary steps to combat doping," he said. "The IOC and others could point to WADA and say, 'it's not our problem.' It would be very unfortunate if they were able to get off the hook in this manner."