Profiles 14 March 2016

David Millar: sporting bodies are failing athletes on anti-doping

The governing bodies of sport are failing athletes on doping and a new approach needs to be taken in order to make all those involved take responsibility when an athlete tests positive, said former professional cyclist David Millar on the sidelines of the Tackling Doping in Sport conference last week. Millar also highlighted the conflicts of interest within the anti-doping system that have been a feature of discussion at the conference.

Millar also highlighted one of the biggest quandaries in anti-doping. Sport is compelled to spend vast amounts of money on testing as a deterrent even though it doesn’t catch elite doping cheats, because they know not to take anything that might cause them to test positive.

Testing as a deterrent

“It’s obvious that she’s made a mistake, because you wouldn’t take something that you know is going to test positive”, said Millar about Maria Sharapova. However, he also said that “at the ground level”, athletes need to know that the testing and whereabouts system ensure that “it’s difficult to cheat and that if you do cheat, you will get caught”.

Millar’s comments suggest a recognition that the purpose of the testing system is not to catch elite doping cheats, but merely to deter them from taking prohibited substances. “That’s the baseline and the prevention, but the cure has to come from above”, he said. This may stick in the craw of lower-tier athletes who feel they have been given lengthly bans for anti-doping rule violations (ADRVs) in order to set an example.

This view was reinforced by his comments on how to fix the corruption and doping that has recently dogged sport. “The two things that actually fix sport are investigative journalism and police investigations”, he said. “No sport has cleaned itself up through its own will yet. It’s going to take more investigative journalism, more police or federal investigations because they’re not going to do it themselves.”

Hit ‘em where it hurts

As reported by the Sports Integrity Initiative last week, Millar feels that one way to further deter doping and fund the anti-doping system would be to include clauses in elite athlete contracts that would make a sponsor financially liable if an athlete tests positive. And he would like a contractual “sponsors code” in place to ensure a blanket ban on sports advertising for such companies, as well as severe financial penalties.

“There’s no such thing as bad publicity”, argues Millar. “There’s nothing at stake for them. Strict liability is a necessary evil, because otherwise the system won’t function considering that it’s black and white analytical test results that we base things on. Sponsors are profiting from all of this. Otherwise they wouldn’t sponsor Sharapova or Armstrong, back in the day. They wouldn’t do this if it wasn’t of economical interest to them. They should then pay an economical price if one of their athletes does make a mistake.”

Millar’s comments take on extra significance given that racquet manufacturer Head bucked the trend of brands distancing themselves from Maria Sharapova following her doping positive. ‘In the absence of any evidence of any intent by Maria of enhancing her performance or trying to gain an unfair advantage through the use of mildronate, we further conclude this falls into the category of “honest” mistakes’, read a statement. ‘Furthermore, we question WADA’s decision to add Meldonium to its banned substances list in the manner it did; we believe the correct action by WADA would have been to impose a dosage limitation only. In the circumstances we would encourage WADA to release scientific studies which validates their claim that Meldonium should be a banned substance.’

He labelled Head’s decision to extend the contract “a highly cynical move. It’s fairly irresponsible by Head, to be honest. I think that it’s sending the worst possible message there is.”

According to the Forbes List of the highest paid female athletes, Sharapova earned US$23 million in endorsements alone during 2015. “If you’re talking numbers like that, then it needs to be more than 20%”, argued Millar. “At 20%, they don’t give a shit. It has to be much bigger and it has to be that their brand is taken off all events for the next two months. Nike, Adidas, Puma or whoever it is, they’re going to be sanctioned.”

Millar says that such a move needs to be made so that sponsors “buy in” to the fact that they have to actively prevent doping, so that “they’re not just external bodies that have nothing to do with it. It has to be scalable. The more money invested, the more money there is at stake.”


Millar argues that Sharapova’s positive is one of those “grey affairs” that will only be clarified once a hearing has taken place. “We don’t yet know whether this is a genuine mistake as she’s outlined, or whether she is a drugs cheat”, he said. “But what’s more worrying is the bigger picture that she has a team of people around her who aren’t informing her or are not aware of these things. That’s a clear total ignorance of anti-doping, if you’re not aware that something you’ve been taking for ten years is going on the banned list. When you’re at that level, that’s just weird. I think that’s what’s most shocking. The biggest concern is that she doesn’t follow the emails that come through. It’s obviously not a concern.”

On Day Two of Tackling Doping in Sport, Millar explained that rather than provide education on anti-doping, personnel who had surrounded him during his early professional cycling career had actively encouraged him to dope. He resisted this temptation for eight years until he injured himself after crashing in the 2001 Tour de France prologue and was sent to Italy to ‘recuperate’. “They thought they were helping me, but I was at breaking point”, he told delegates. “It felt like I had a professional duty to dope”.

However, despite the fact that athlete support personnel do not appear to have been living up to their job description in both Millar’s and Sharapova’s cases, Millar was keen to play down any comparison between the two situations. “At that level, if there’s that level of indifference to something as big as the WADA Code, then I would say that’s just plain concerning”, he said. “My experience and Sharapova’s was completely different but yes, there is a cultural problem there”.

As highlighted in this Sports Integrity Initiative article, Millar is one of many who believe that Sharapova will escape a four-year ban, however he also believes she should not be the only one sanctioned. “She must reveal all her experiences, who the people are, and those people need to be sanctioned as well”, he said. “The entourage must be sanctioned”.


Meldonium was added to the WADA’s 2015 Monitoring Programme when it published its 2015 Prohibited List on 29 September 2014. On 30 September 2015, WADA published the 2016 Prohibited List, which included meldonium as WADA had found ‘evidence of its use by athletes with the intention of enhancing performance’. This leaves a gap of over a year between when WADA had announced that it was monitoring meldonium, and when it was eventually banned. In effect, by announcing that a substance is going to be monitored, WADA is essentially signalling to determined dopers that it may have a performance-enhancing effect.

“It’s clearly performance enhancing if it’s been put into the WADA Code”, said Millar, who said he had never heard of the anti-ischemic drug, which is used to treat restrictions in blood supply to tissues (further details here). Although Millar retired in 2014, he was appointed as a mentor to younger cyclists by British Cycling in February this year. The fact that neither he – a former doper – nor Sharapova appears to have heard of meldonium perhaps suggests that WADA needs to do more to publicise additions to its Prohibited List.

However, Millar added that Sharapova needed to be given the “benefit of the doubt”, as “we don’t yet know whether this is a genuine mistake as she’s outlined, or whether she is a drugs cheat”. Despite its widespread use in certain countries, he argued that taking meldonium is not cheating if it’s not on the Prohibited List, however added: “You’d have to have a pretty legitimate medical problem to be on medication for ten years”.

Supplementing success

The widespread use of meldonium in some countries is perhaps indicative of a wider societal problem, which dictates that in order to succeed, some sort of artificial ‘boost’ is required. Many supplement companies are now involved in sponsoring sport; supplement advisers are on hand in many UK supermarkets and road bikes are often sold with supplement starter packs. Millar thinks that this is sending the wrong message to young athletes.

“I tell all our young British cycling guys that they can’t take any supplements”, says Millar. “No supplements whatsoever. You can take your energy drinks, your science in sport gels and your recovery drinks, but no vitamins. I don’t want to see anything from pharmacies, nothing from supermarkets, nothing from online nutritional support. It’s a draconian message, but it has to be so that they’ll learn. Then they’ll win races and see that they don’t need it. They’ll get lighter, they’ll get fitter, they’ll get stronger, they’ll win races or they’ll just get the best out of themselves and they won’t have relied on that mental crutch of having to take this stupid herb or this amazing vitamin that’s just appeared from nowhere. Because it’s just not true and I think that kids need to learn that.”

“If you get that kind of mindset where you think that supplement’s going to give you a boost, then you’re already fixing that sort of pattern”, he argues. “You shouldn’t require that sort of thing. Each sport has a responsibility to enforce that, educate, and then hopefully you’ll be able to make a difference. However, unfortunately, that’s something that’s very hard to do in today’s day and age.

“I am sure that there are kids doing it at school just to look good”, states Millar. However he also points at that “there are people doing that at the youth level and amateur level, selling their wares saying that they can make you perform better without cheating. I would say that’s very questionable.”

The way forward – independent anti-doping

One of the clear messages from Tackling Doping in Sport was that sport has lost the right to conduct its own anti-doping programmes – a message that Millar agrees with. “Unfortunately the public at large and a lot of people in all sports, even at a high level, are just blissfully unaware of how nascent the anti-doping movement is, and the fact that these international federations actually do run their own anti-doping programmes”, he said. “Clearly, that can’t happen”.

“I think that in 15-20 years, all of these anti-doping bodies should be completely independent under the WADA umbrella with WADA being the ultimate power”, he argues. “Cases like this will wake people up to that, so we need this to happen to educate people. Sadly, for Maria Sharapova, it takes somebody of her status to create this dialogue and this interrogation. It’s the only way that the ITF [International Tennis Federation] will be forced to have a look at themselves and be provoked into action.

Ivory towers

Millar told delegates at Tackling Doping in Sport that sporting bodies need to come down from its “ivory towers” and re-engage with athletes. He later explained his comments. “They control everything”, he said. “I think that they’re so far removed from what is going on and they’re so powerful that they forget what they’re there for. They should be using their power in a different way rather than worrying about what city they’re going to host the Games in, how much money they’re going to get from sponsors or how much TV rights are going to be worth. They should be using that power to help the athletes.”

Millar argued that the ‘strict liability’ principle that applies in anti-doping could be preventing athletes from approaching sporting bodies with information about doping. “They seem to be omnipotent, which prevents the athletes from voicing their concerns – for example the famous ‘omertà’ in cycling”, he said. “What’s the point in talking if you’re going to be the one that’s going to be strictly liable or if you’re the one that’s going to be thrown out or blacklisted? Sporting bodies need to help clean athletes more and prevent the clean athletes from becoming dopers. It’s their moral responsibility.”

Millar said that sporting bodies have got to win “the hearts and minds” of the athletes, which they are not doing at the moment. “The amount of money that’s involved in the IOC, that’s involved with hosting a Games, that they demand from sponsors, against the amount of money that’s put into global anti-doping, it doesn’t add up”, he argued. “Then they get all high and mighty and talk about Olympic bans and zero tolerance, and you have to ask what are you guys actually doing to stop this happening, apart from a couple of victorian statements about amateurism?”


Having been at the sharp end of doping – if you’ll pardon the pun – Millar knows that anti-doping is a fight that sport cannot win, but he argues that cycling could present an example to athletics about how progress can be made. “You’ll never eradicate doping 100%”, he points out. “That’s just naive and stupid to say that, because it’s like saying we’ll banish crime. It’s human nature. You can now win the Tour de France clean. You don’t have any re-injectable recoup [EPO]. I think that’s an amazing beacon of hope.”

Millar is not arguing that cycling is clean, but that it has turned a corner whereby you can win without performance-enhancing drugs – something that wasn’t possible during most of his career. “It’s all through trust”, he argues. “You never know 100% what’s going on, but Dan Martin is a teammate, Ryder Hesjedal, Christian Vande Velde, Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas – these are all guys that I trust implicitly who perform at the highest level in cycling, and they’re killing people. So if that’s possible, then we’ve cleaned up the elite.”

Millar argues that cyclists he trust are clean have won major events at the pinnacle of world cycling. Wiggins and Froome have won the Tour de France, Hesjedal has won the Grio d’Italia and Dan Martin has won the Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Giro di Lombardia. “That would be impossible if there was any high-level doping going on”, he says.

However, he argues that other sports are playing the same “head in the sand” game that the UCI was playing for many years. He told delegates at Tackling Doping in Sport that while publicly denying that it had a problem with EPO, in 1997 the UCI introduced a 50% hematocrit rule, which it introduced as a ‘health check’ in order to ensure that cyclists did not have heart problems through starting major races with dangerously thickened blood. If riders showed a hematocrit concentration greater than 50%, they were prevented from racing for 15 days.

Millar argues that the introduction of this rule was an acknowledgement that there was a problem with EPO use in cycling. As identified by the Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC), it was also effectively a UCI green light to EPO use. ‘One unintended consequence of the 50% haematocrit threshold on all riders, regardless of their natural levels, was that riders with haematocrit levels naturally in the low-mid 40s could gain an advantage by using EPO up to 50%’, reads the CIRC report. ‘According to one former rider, the introduction of the 50% haematocrit value rule was perceived by riders as legalising EPO up to a certain limit. He stated that if a rider had not used EPO beforehand, he had certainly started using it after the rule was introduced in 1997.’

“No international sport has the right to say that they haven’t got a problem”, argues Millar. “This is what the UCI did for many years until they had to admit that there was a problem. This is very much what’s going on with other sports. You do have a problem, because it’s being proved over and over again. It’s bordering on irresponsible. However, it’s very hard to know what’s going on on the ground when you’re working on a political level in Switzerland or Monaco. I wouldn’t be surprised if they have no idea what’s actually going on, because they don’t go and find out. They’re not doing the research and they’re not paying attention to the stories that are written.”

It is perhaps a sign of how far we have come that cycling’s experience can be used as an example for other sport to follow – a position that was perhaps inconceivable two years ago. When he talks about “ivory towers”, Millar’s message is that sport needs to come down from it high and mighty ‘zero tolerance’ position and support and engage with the athletes which provide its revenue. Only then can they win back the hearts and minds of the athletes.

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