News 29th August 2015

INHDR Conference: is anti-doping fit for purpose?

Debate about wether the current anti-doping system is fit for purpose dominated the second day of the International Network of Humanistic Doping Research (INHDR) conference at Aarhus University yesterday. Anti-doping organisations (ADOs) told delegates that the prevalence of doping in sport is low, and that sanctions were approached in a sensible manner with the athlete’s intention and welfare in mind. Scientists argued that surveys suggest that the prevalence of doping could be much higher than ADOs are prepared to admit, and that preservation of the anti-doping system and the rules that it has created are often prioritised ahead of athlete health and welfare.

It was also argued that there is mounting evidence that ADOs know that the system is flawed, yet actively seek to preserve it by propagating misinformation and repressing research and debate. Contrary to the commonly-held idea that providing more money to ADOs will always result in better testing, research was presented which showed that this is not true.

The ADO view…

“Our best estimate is that 4.2% of athletes have ever intentionally doped”, said Herman Ram of the Dutch Doping Autoriteit. “In 50% of cases, athletes claim that their anti-doping rule violation (ADRV) was unintentional”. Ram highlighted that coping with unintentional ADRVs was part of the daily work of an ADO. He highlighted a number of similar cases which resulted in differing outcomes, pointing out that ensuring consistency in the sanctioning system is difficult when you are dealing with variables such as whether an athlete engages with the authorities.

The fact that in four out of ten cases, athletes receive lower sanctions than the standard two-year ban is evidence that ADOs are prepared to listen to athlete explanations and reduce sanctions accordingly. However, he conceded that the system does have issues, and that over-regulation could become an issue. “In general, rules tend to grow”, he said. “Once we have had personal contact with an athlete, the number of unintentional violations is close to nil”.

Ram highlighted that it is still an issue that many national federations assess doping cases themselves, meaning they are involved in the sport in which they are ruling on. “This can be a problem”, he acknowledged. He also said that this issue can perpetuate itself at the international level, as many arbitrators at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) are former Presidents of national federations. “There is a fundamental tension in the world between the wish to harmonise anti-doping, and a world which is not harmonised”, he said.

The scientist view…

Klaas Faber, an analytical chemist and founder of Chemometry, argued against Ram’s perception in the first parallel session of the day. “Silly rules are placed above human beings, and these rules are beyond repair”, he said. He said that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) had threatened to sue scientific journal Nature over an article on exogenous testosterone, because its analysis threatened WADA’s set of rules.

Faber pointed out that children who have no intention of cheating are being required to give urine samples to strangers and are being banned over these rules. He cited the case of 12-year-old Igor Walilko, whose two-year ban for a positive tests resulting from eating an energy bar was reduced to 18 months by the CAS, after WADA argued that the sanction was disproportionate.

Faber argued that sensible thresholds need to be put in place for substances such as cannabis and clenbuterol, as athletes are being banned for levels that are not scientifically recognised as being performance-enhancing. “The common notion is that dopers are willing to do anything to win”, he said. “The minority view is that anti-doping appears to be willing to do anything to beat the dopers. The goal appears to justify the means, including the violation go human rights – children’s rights. Armstrong at least risked his life on a bike. Are we looking at ‘corrupt idealism’, or mere blind spots?”

Werner Pitsch, of Aarhus University, pointed out the inevitability of doping due to human behaviour. “We all drive too fast, but we only drive 10-15km per hour too fast, in areas where nobody will see it”, he said. He argued that it appears that WADA and NADOs profit from perpetuating the current system. According to his research, the maximum possibility of an athlete being detected doping in-competition is 10% and for out of competition, this falls to 0.7%. This contrasts with the figures often put forward by ADOs.

“If we detected 100% of doping, the entire system that we have created would collapse”, he argued, due to the resulting work and appeals that would result. He argued that WADA and ADOs therefore try to preserve the dignity of the system by preventing it from collapsing. As an example, he cited 2007 research which indicated that 90% of the blood values collected at the 1999 Tour de France were suspicious, yet nothing was done.

Carsten Martensen of Aarhus University turned the premise that giving NADOs more money results in better testing, preventing research which showed that the opposite is true. “More money fails to equal better anti-doping”, he said. He also called into question the testing statistics of some of the NADOs. RUSASA reported 10,000 tests exactly for 2009, 15,000 tests exactly for 2010 and 20,000 tests exactly for 2011…

Torbjörn Tännsjö, of Stockholm University, suggest that we lift the ban on doping and change our perception of sport entirely to one of entertainment. He said that anti-doping is too arbitrary to be considered fair, as we look with suspicion on some blood values, yet allow others. “We should see sport as a quest, not for who is naturally best, but for what can be achieved with the human body”, he said.

“WADA’s aims, as stated in the World Anti-Doping Code, are reasonable”, argued Verner Møller, of Aarhus University. “However, as far as I can see, it is not achieving those aims. It is creating a lot of unintended consequences.” He used case law examples such as Jonathan Breyne’s attempted suicide after testing positive for clenbuterol; Alberto Contador’s sanction for clenbuterol after testing for levels well below those required to have an active effect on human physiology; the Igor Walilko case referred to earlier; Luca Paolini’s positive for cocaine and the fact that yesterday’s speaker Michael Rasmussen, Nicki Sørensen and Bjarne Riis have not been sanctioned for failing drug tests as an illustration of the futility of the system.

“Even if anti-doping’s deterrent effect makes 99% of athletes abstain from doping, then that makes doping all the more advantageous for the remaining 1%”, he argued. “WADA denigrates critics and invents narratives to make the public believe that the system is working”.

As evidence for this, Møller pointed to WADA’s brief history of doping, which appears on its internet site. In that, it states: ‘The death of Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen during competition at the Olympic Games in Rome 1960 (the autopsy revealed traces of amphetamine) increased the pressure for sports authorities to introduce drug testing’. It has been proved that heatstroke was the sole cause of Jensen’s death, yet WADA has resisted claims to change this section of its internet site.

A review of day one of the INHDR conference is available here, and analysis of Michael Rasmussen’s keynote address is available here. You can view the full programme for the conference by clicking here.

Side debates

• Whether it is right that we track else athletes more closely than we track paedophiles. Also, whether it is right that the anti-doping system is testing and prosecuting children, especially when they have to pee in front of the tester…

• Testing figures of less than 1% positive do not justify the huge intrusion into the private lives of athletes, argued Marcel Scharf of the German Sport University in Köln. “Why isn’t this issue discussed?” he asked. An interesting debate also followed on whether athletes have free choice to sign the athlete agreement with their national federation when they sign up to participate in sport.

• WADA is concerned about whether its whereabouts system can withstand a challenge on human rights grounds, which is why it withdrew from a 2009 case attempting to ban two Belgian tennis players for failing to file their whereabouts correctly, pointed out Faber.

• Møller cited the case of triathlete Elizabeth May, who complained about the actions of a doping tester who she felt had invaded her privacy by forcing her to hold her shirt up and getting too close to the athlete. Anti-Doping Denmark (ADD) stated that the rules were that the anti-doping personnel must not get closer than 50cm from the athlete. The ADD official who made that statement, Jens Evald, has recently been appointed as an arbitrator at the CAS.

• The rise in doping culture within cycling is closely intertwined with the history of suffering in the sport, exacerbated by poor rules in the early history of the sport, argued John Connolly of Dublin City University. Drug culture was accepted until 2000, however cyclists are now starting to feel ashamed of doping, yet a sense of insecurity pervades, as many have no life outside the sport.

• “You cannot test your way to clean sport”, pointed out John Gleaves and Matt Englar-Carlson of California State University in a joint presentation on positive psychology in sport.

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