7th June 2021

Necessity is the mother of reinvention for anti-doping

• A way to stay relevant and a step ahead of the cheats in the post-pandemic age 

Necessity is the mother of invention, as the old proverb goes. This is a saying that has become all too common in these pandemic times as companies, brands, individuals, industries even, have found themselves having one very long, hard look in the mirror to reflect on where to go when the world grinds to a halt. 

And, as we know all too well, Covid-19 doesn’t discriminate; it is a virus that has struck all people, regardless of background, socio-economic status, gender, race, and nationality. It truly has been a global pandemic that has affected society in ways we couldn’t have foreseen 18 months ago. 

And yet, here we are, in some parts of the world, starting to emerge from the Covid-19 tunnel, albeit at different speeds. As we emerge from this tunnel, we will now start to see how the pandemic has affected different industries and their long-term vision – and whether that vision resembles something different from when we entered it in early 2020. 

There has been talk for many months now about how an industry such as the fitness sector, for example, will look now that we’ve experienced first hand the importance of ongoing exercise and workouts from our living rooms at home and the benefits it brings for our continued health and wellbeing. Surely now, commentators argue, fitness centres and gyms will need to be less about charging customers over-the-odds gym memberships and more about a hybrid virtual class / physical class model that caters for the modern-day consumer’s busy work-life balance. 

For the fitness sector, many would argue, the sneaker is now very much on the other (the consumer’s, not the gym’s) foot. Then there’s the retail sector and how we do our shopping in the city centres and on the high streets. Whilst online internet shopping has grown for many years, there were still many consumers – particularly the older generations – who were so accustomed to going out for their shopping. By force, not necessarily will, the pandemic changed those habits, to varying degrees, for people who had no other option than to buy their goods online. And there will be many other big shifts across industries that start to stream into our consciousness in the coming months, too. 

And so where does the pandemic tunnel leave a sector such as anti-doping in sport? A relatively ‘young’ sector, let’s not forget, if you consider its birth as being when the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was formed in 1999. What changes will this new post-pandemic world herald that the old world did not? 

The answer to this question really lies in the collective will of anti-doping organisations, sports federations, athletes, scientists and clean sport pioneers to opt for innovation ahead of stagnation. Whilst anti-doping is occasionally criticised for lagging behind the more dynamic, free-market corporate and business sector, I would argue that it has in many instances proven itself willing to adapt, to embrace new technology and strategies for the good of the clean athlete. 

Take, for example, the leap the industry took in adopting the Athlete Biological Passport (ABP), which has proven an invaluable tool in the fight for clean sport. Or the shift the industry took from a sole reliance on traditional blood and urine testing to embracing the non-analytical tools of intelligence-gathering and investigations. The evidence of an evolving industry – with consensus for these new strategies and tools – is there for all to see. 

The anti-doping industry entered the pandemic tunnel without consensus, still, on how to grapple with the fallout from the Russian doping crisis. There is still a clear split, all these years on from the Pound and McLaren Reports, over how to reform clean sport, including the global regulator itself, so that it is more representative of the international athlete voice, and more independent from sport. 

In simplistic terms, this very public debate split clean sport advocates into two camps, with more often than not the athletes and National Anti-Doping Organisations (NADOs) sitting on one side of the fence (advocating far reaching reform and modernisation of anti-doping) and the Sports Movement (advocating modest reform or the status quo) on the other. This debate, seemingly, is still in need of seeking that crucial consensus that appeases both sides, for the movement to successfully enter the roaring, post-pandemic 2020s as a united front.

However, whilst that debate may still very much be a live one, one area where anti-doping – and its different factions – truly have the opportunity to achieve consensus is through embracing modern technology and strategies that can protect clean sport and athletes effectively. Because if there are new, digitised tools available that can serve athletes that have the potential to offer benefits such as increased efficiency and reduce costs, then surely this is an example of where the anti-doping community can achieve consensus – and focus on what unites, rather than divides. Having seen how technologies can bolster efficiencies of other industries, clean sport proponents are now starting to regard new technologies more seriously, because they present new strategies for detecting and deterring doping.

Front and centre of the potential new strategies surely has to be virtual testing, which was piloted by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) in April 2020, just as the global pandemic began to put the brakes on the industry – an industry which had relied for a long time on in person human blood and urine testing. Crucially, the virtual testing pilot put athletes – and their level of comfort with this novel approach – front and centre. It involved athletes providing urine and blood samples in their own home while being watched remotely by a representative on a video conferencing platform. 

Top American athletes including Katie Ledecky, Lilly King, and runner Emma Coburn volunteered to take part, with Ledecky saying: “This is the perfect time to test something like this. I think it’s great for the circumstances we’re all in right now”. With USADA practicing the “necessity is the mother of invention” preach, here was an organisation not willing to see the industry as a victim of the pandemic, not willing to merely ride it out. No, here was an organisation seeing a global pandemic as a catalyst for positive change. And change that demonstrated flexibility, agility and the wellbeing of athletes at its heart. 

Virtual testing, and other new strategies such as Performance Monitoring, are not likely to be the panacea for anti-doping, nor do they need to be. Because anti-doping at its best is an industry with a diverse range of tools in the toolbox being utilised at different times, depending on differing needs, resources and practicalities. Anti-doping at its best is an unpredictable, agile system that champions athletes’ rights every step of the way, whilst simultaneously keeping the guessing game up for those athletes looking to subvert the system.

The likes of virtual testing will only continue to gain momentum if the collective attitude and will is there from forward-thinking clean sport advocates that want to bolster the ever-improving toolbox, as new technologies allow. As we emerge from the pandemic, the modern world will fortune those that are brave with proposing and testing new technologies, to see what sticks and what doesn’t. The perfect time to have a conversation about technology and its role in clean sport surely has to be now, as more and more nations start to emerge from the pandemic tunnel and as anti-doping organisations, now more than ever, realise the need to identify efficiencies wherever they may exist. 

We hear a lot in today’s world about remaining relevant. Whether it’s the Olympic Games remaining relevant for Gen Z through the launch of its Olympic Virtual Series or the inclusion of new youthful Olympic sports, or whether it be – as was the case in the last few days – the Commonwealth Games Federation President stressing the need for the Games to be downsized after Birmingham 2022 if the event is to remain relevant for a new age. 

And the same beckons for anti-doping, and its bid to remain relevant for today’s athlete. The conversation of technology’s role in clean sport has begun, and never before has there been a better time to champion the merits of innovation in this cause-driven movement than today. 

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