Anti-doping fight lauded by Wada

The leader of the World Anti-Doping Agency challenged countries to model their drug-fighting efforts after the United States, where sports leaders and law enforcement have worked together since the BALCO scandal to catch cheaters.

In a speech to the Association of National Anti-Doping Organisations, WADA general director David Howman outlined the challenges facing anti-doping forces - including an underworld drug culture rife with black-market pharmaceuticals and increased efforts to skirt newly developing biological passport testing.

Howman said countries should learn from the US government, which has teamed with the US Anti-Doping Agency to arrest, indict and convict several high-profile athletes.

"The challenge I gave them was, try to be as good as the United States," Howman said.

 "You look at USADA and the way they partner up with enforcement agencies. You see they're not scared to do the hard work. They're not scared to look at high-profile athletes who might be caught. These kind of doping issues aren't present only in the United States. It's a global issue."

Accused athletes who used drugs

Many of the biggest US names accused of using performance-enhancing drugs - including sprinters Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery, and baseball players Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens - passed drug tests but got entangled in the legal system as a result of investigations run by federal authorities.

 Jones and Montgomery have been convicted while Bonds and Clemens have been indicted but have pleaded not guilty and haven't gone to trial.

The collaboration between government and anti-doping authorities became well-known during the BALCO scandal - the federal probe into the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative that produced evidence against dozens of athletes.

Currently underway is a federal investigation into cycling that appears pointed at seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong. Armstrong has repeatedly denied allegations that he has taken performance-enhancing drugs.

Federal investigations such as BALCO, however, go well beyond whether athletes pass or fail drug tests and try to find evidence of drug distribution, money laundering and systemic fraud and corruption. Jones, for example, was convicted of lying to federal agents, while Montgomery went to prison for his role in a check-kiting scheme.

"The message is, you've got to use what tools you have," said Graeme Steel, the president of ANADO, who also serves as CEO of New Zealand's anti-doping agency. "Anybody who knows anything about this would understand that testing is far from a perfect tool.

Drug tests can be beaten

It's an important tool and it will catch athletes from time to time. But over time, they've proven they can beat it, and the response has been, we need different, sometimes more powerful tools and allies."

More than 25 countries sent executives from their anti-doping agencies to the annual meeting, held this year in Colorado Springs, where USADA is headquartered. Howman said he was using his speech to "provoke" leaders into re-examining the way they do business.

Among the tough questions he posed were:

  • Could there be incentives for national anti-doping agencies to not catch cheats, because catching them prevents countries from boasting spotless records?
  • What are countries doing to combat black-market drug sales that he estimates could make up 25% of the pharmaceutical industry?
  • Has the advent of sophisticated "biological passports" - a testing system that gauges athletes against their own baseline readings instead of standardised numbers - actually served to create more effective and sophisticated cheaters?

Howman and Steele agree that law enforcement can help tackle these problems and asking for help shouldn't be viewed as a sign of weakness of a country's anti-doping programme.

"It's not a negative," Steele said. "It's anti-doping recognising the limitations of the old-style programs and bringing on board the extra armoury that's needed."

(Sapa, Eddie Pells, November 2010)

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