“The Armstrong case has given people a significant jolt”
WADA Director General David Howman speaking at Play the Game 2009. Photo (c) Jens Astrup/Play the Game
07.01.2013By Søren Bang
“From our point of view it certainly wasn’t surprising. What we thought was that USADA did a thoroughly professional job and exposed a conspiracy and exposed a fraud that we, at least, were aware of and we’ve congratulated them for that.”
According to David Howman, Director General of WADA, the Lance Armstrong case that sparked headlines a few months ago didn’t come as a bombshell, however sensationally it was presented by the media.
But the detailed report on how the most tested man on the planet could get around the anti-doping system for more than a decade has once again exposed how difficult it is to fight doping despite political and scientific efforts to make the web denser. Howman still sees some key actions the anti-doping authorities can prioritise to give these efforts a further boost.
“One is obviously beefing up the way in which people can gather evidence and the other is beefing up the testing program to make sure the sophisticated cheat is actually caught. And I guess the third one is encouraging people to come forward and tell us what’s going on.”
The Armstrong case showed that testing couldn’t reveal the use of doping substances. What does that say about the fight against doping?
“I think the Armstrong case illustrates something that we have been saying now for four or five years and that is that science can’t catch all the cheats, therefore collecting samples and sending them off to laboratories is not going to catch everybody. Armstrong is the ultimate example of that.”
“This case has given people a significant jolt and they now realise that perhaps what they have been doing over the years is not as good as it could be. What you have to do then is say, can you align that with what you do in your testing program with what I would describe as gathering evidence from current sources that are available, including the people like the police and customs people and athletes who are willing to come forward and say what has really been going on in their sport.”
Don’t try to replace the police
Are national anti-doping organisations equipped to do such investigations or information gathering?
“We put out protocols several years ago to show national anti-doping organisations how they could do this without having a huge increase on their expenditure. Some people think that they should be doing these investigations themselves. I’m not of that view at all. I’m of the view that if you’ve got people out on a daily basis already being paid by governments to do inquiries and to pick up information and evidence, then you make use of them and you create a partnership with them. Use the police.”
“Now for the police to be active there have to be laws, and that’s the other thing we’ve been hammering on about for the last few years. We should have good laws in place for issues such as the trafficking and distribution of steroids. Most of them (governments) have said they will because signing on to the UNESCO treaty (International Convention Against Doping in Sport) indicates that commitment. But they haven’t, so there’s a gap.”
“If anti-doping people feel that they should open up a branch called the investigation branch, which is going to have a similar sort of approach to the police, then they’re starting to walk into dangerous territory. I would prefer them to think of gathering the intelligence by liaising with the police.”
Instead of starting their own type of ‘police departments’?
“That would be fraught with disaster and actually fraught with issues such as human rights and powers and all those sorts of things that they would never get. The government would never give them the same power of search and seizure and interrogation that you really need if you’re going to do that.”
The limits of testing
The costs of doping control are high, and you have the problem of detecting doping by testing, even supported by biological passports. Are we getting to the practical limits of what testing can do?
“The overriding principle of what we do in anti-doping is trying to make sure that cheats do not prosper. Now at the moment I fear that some cheats are prospering and the example from Armstrong shows that only too clearly. Are we prepared to go the full length of making sure that doesn’t continue? If we are, then we turn our minds to say, ‘How is that to be done?’ And you don’t start with the point of view of it as too expensive. What you do is say, ‘How can we do it?’”
“The first thing that I would do; I would think of saying to all the laboratories, instead of giving this multi-faceted tiered approach of how much you charge for each substance and each extra test and so forth, you provide a cost for a full menu analysis. And then NADOs will have to work out how many tests they conduct and whether they come to WADA and ask that they be excused from testing for the full menu because of A, B or C reasons. Now that is at least looking at the issue from a better perspective than just saying, ‘Woe is us, we haven’t got any money’. I just don’t accept that.”
But still there are the sophisticated dopers, as you call them. Is there a need for radical new ways of looking at doping prevention?
“I think you need to continue to look at education and you also need to rely on people in general and sport having high values. If people do not have high values, then you’re always going to have people who cheat. That’s the same in every corner of society.”
“My concern is that in the last ten years, society, at least in the Western world, has generally evolved in a cheating way. There are more cheats than there used to be. Kids cheat at school and don’t even think about it. Parliamentarians cheat in parliament by defrauding the public of things like claiming false expenses. There are a whole lot of areas in which society is inundated with that sort of thought.”
“Now, what we generally do is say that sport is different, and at least we can rely on one part of our daily operations in society where people have got high values.”
The paradox of successful anti-doping work
A researcher mentioned to me the paradox that in the old days in cycling the majority of riders may have been using doping, but at least they were having a ‘fair competition’. Nowadays fewer may be using doping substances, but because the others aren’t, the doped riders are having even more of a benefit.
Do you recognise that built-in paradox in having a successful doping fight?
“You’re talking about cycling and I don’t know of too many other sports that you could put into that category. But I think cycling has made quite a bit of difference in the last little period of time. The issue is that there are still those who can see an advantage can be gained by cheating. I think probably if you go back to the ’90s, it was a major competition of who was the best cheat and one guy who has won seven titles has probably won that title of being the best cheat. And if you read the evidence and the books that have been written about it, he went to great lengths to make sure that his competitors didn’t know what he was doing to cheat.”
“However, if people want competitions where they applaud the best cheat, well they’re welcome to them. But I don’t think that’s what, to be fair to the current riders, they want.”
Maybe, but if you’ve still got just a few black sheep…?
“If you’ve got that then they should be exposed and if the sort of system that I’ve been talking about can be put into place, they will be exposed and if they’re not exposed by their fellow competitors then they will be exposed by investigative journalists or they’ll be exposed by the police. Once you get into a minority, then it’s a much harder thing to survive. When you’re in the majority, it’s very simple.”
But it could be a general problem for all doping work: If you get a more clean sport then you could give a bigger advantage to those who are not clean? It’s a built-in paradox.
“Yes, it is. I think at the end of the day, though, what prevails in our societies is that you try to look out for the majority. You make rules that look after the majority and if the minority breaks those rules then you’ve got to punish them even more heavily. The issue is catching them – that’s the big question.”
Problematic zero tolerance approach
But catching doping abusers needs to be done in a nuanced way, Howman argues. After the Armstrong case had created big headlines in the media Howman warned against simplistic ‘zero tolerance’ policies, for instance in professional cycling, threatening athletes with all sorts of consequences from sackings to life bans if they admitted they had been using performance enhancing substances at some point.
“The words ‘zero tolerance’ make nice reading and, for the public, sound as though you’re being really tough. What it is actually doing is driving underground those who might have otherwise come forward and given information to clean the thing up. And all I think will happen in relation to cycling if this zero tolerance thing is pursued is that people will shut up and then in two or three years’ time we’ll have another saga.”
“So if any commission or any group says, ‘When we find out that you’ve committed any sort of doping offence you’re going to be banned from the sport for life’ then all they’re doing is telling people not to open their mouths. Now, I think there might be a better way of doing it, which is to say that we are now aware of a significant problem and we want to be able to start again afresh. I don’t pretend to have all the answers for that, but one of the answers would certainly be to get rid of this zero tolerance policy.”
“To be fair to UCI, they’ve set up a commission. I think they might want to look carefully at those terms of reference to make sure that encouragement is given and I would hope the people who are running it, who are decent and independent individuals, will see that and they’ve got the ability and the power to do it.”
You have mentioned earlier the need for a more enhanced effort to fight criminal forces in the sport. Where do you think this debate stands now and is that still an issue?
“It’s definitely an issue and I think it’s gaining in momentum. The governments who come together under MINEPS through UNESCO are looking at that in terms of the programs they’re running at a conference they’re holding in Berlin next May. The Council of Europe has looked at it. I think there is momentum.”
“The issue is if that momentum will be carried further over the coming years as a result of things like Armstrong. I hope so because the information we have from people on the ground, whether they be from law enforcement or elsewhere, is that the criminal underworld are getting quite a big hold on sport in general and I think that’s a very uncomfortable situation for sport to find itself in.”
Recently, you had a joint conference with the medical industry. It’s obvious that if they can inform you about new substances going on the market it could be an advantage, but do you see other possibilities like putting markers on the drugs themselves?
“I don’t know about the marker approach, that’s been talked about a few times, but I just don’t think that that is the go, to be honest. We’ve looked at that and sort of rejected it. But what we do see, and this would help us in a very major fashion, is that the pharmaceutical industry itself has a vast amount of money which is spent on research. What we would like is the ability for some of that money to be spent on anti-doping research in a way which is separate, if you like, from the companies themselves. That would be very helpful,” Howman says.
When it comes to the underground market for doping substances, the broad demand for recreational doping with its focus on body aesthetics rather than results may be a bigger challenge in comparison with traditional elite sport doping. But internationally the main focus is still on elite sport, and only a few countries like Denmark and Norway differ by co-operating with gyms including voluntary testing programmes.
Do you think it will continue to be mostly a Nordic speciality to have a lot of focus on recreational doping?
“I hope it is something that other countries pick up and I praise the Danish government for the report that they put out during their [EU] presidency. I think that it is something that we’ve been talking about for four or five years, that doping is not an issue confined to elite sportspeople, it’s actually quite rampant through our society with health impacts and social impacts. I think what the Danish government did in that report was expose that and I would hope that others would read it carefully and say, ‘We will join in’. This is an area where governments should take some active steps.”
Humans are subject to temptation
If you should evaluate the status and potential of the anti-doping work at the moment, how challenged is it?
“I think it’s a very difficult area to work in and we need to make sure that those who are working in it are incentivised to ensure that the people who are taking shortcuts and cheating are caught. What we also need to ensure is that all the money that we’ve spend on all the science, which is very good, is utilised to the full and not avoided by simply saying it’s too expensive. I think if you’ve got one of the greatest scourges in world sport being doping, then you’ve got to have a greater commitment than just looking for an excuse of money. And what we have to do is be more innovative in how to deal with it. That’s a challenge.”
If we had this conversation in 5-10 years, would we then talk about a new case like the Armstrong case?
“I think there are two possibilities: We will either be talking about another scandal in five years’ time, or there will have been a sea change made in the sport of cycling that will take that sport off that radar scheme. But that will then open up the possibility of being another sport or another athlete. Unfortunately human beings, as we know, are subject to temptation.”
Read the second part of the interview with David Howman '