It’s a strange Olympic Games underway in Tokyo, held in a strange time. COVID-19 protocols take precedence over everything else: weddings, funerals, jobs — in many cases, the ability to earn a living.
- The director-general of WADA says anti-doping suffered understandable setbacks during the COVID-19 pandemic
- Athletes had more time to educate themselves on anti-doping
- One area of concern for some is the ability for labs testing to pick up extremely small traces of banned substances in samples
In the early stages of the global pandemic, anti-doping suffered along with every other aspect of sport and life but the director-general of the World Anti-Doping Agency has reassured athletes competing at the Tokyo Games that drug testing internationally is back to pre-COVID levels.
“Obviously the pandemic had an effect on everything including sports and including anti-doping,” Olivier Niggli told The Ticket.
“We’ve seen different phases in the crisis, we started in 2020, by really seeing a standstill on everything for about two months, I would say, March-April 2020 were the worst and then things slowly started resuming.
“From the beginning of this year, the last six months, everybody has done a tremendous effort to bring back testing to a level which is equivalent to what it was in 2019.
“In the last three months, the out-of-competition testing figures are actually higher than what they were back in 2019.”
Different eras have focussed on different issues in sport from gender diversity to amateurism versus professionalism and more recently, anti-doping.
Niggli was asked whether he thought the focus on COVID threatened to depose anti-doping’s position as the issue of most concern.
“Well, I think what should never lose its place is the value of sport and putting values at the forefront of sport, because this is helping society in general, this is helping the youth and so on.
“So, the integrity of sports and whether it’s anti-doping or other elements of integrity are part of defending those values and for that reason I think it will always remain at the centre of the essence of sport.
COVID also brought about a shift, particularly in the area of education, as athletes found themselves with more time at home and the ability to engage virtually.
“We’ve done a lot more education and anti-doping organisations generally have done a lot more than they were doing before because they could reach out to the athletes through Zoom or other means.
“Given that nobody had much else to do, there was a lot of programs put into place, there were a lot of education sessions and webinars and that was great.”
It’s an area Niggli is confident will continue to grow.
Labs ‘too good’?
One area of concern for a growing number of athlete associations is the ability for labs testing to pick up infinitely small traces of banned substances in samples, which has been shown in some cases to come from innocently ingesting a contaminated product.
It’s an argument Australian swimmer Shayna Jack put forward after testing positive to Ligandrol ahead of the 2019 world championships.
She is still awaiting the decision of a WADA-Sport Integrity Australia appeal over the leniency of the two-year ban she was handed, rather than the standard four-year ban for a first-time offence.
Originally, the appeal decision was to be handed down before these Olympic Games but is now not expected from the Court of Arbitration for Sport until September.
“The system has always evolved with the progress of science and that has been the case from the beginning … yes, in some ways the labs are becoming too good and this is something that has to be taken into account.
“Recently we’ve actually started that with contamination for a number of substances where we have established reporting thresholds so that the lab will only report above a certain level and this work’s going to continue.”
It’s about finding the right balance, according to Niggli.
“When you catch someone with a low level of a substance you don’t know whether they are at the end of their excretion phase from something serious they have taken a few weeks before.
“So it’s always a difficulty and we have to rely on science to help guide us in terms of what kind of reasonable balance we can find and that’s what we’ve done for these contaminants and we continue to do.
“But when you’re at the coalface, you realise that this is also a perfect excuse for many athletes so, again, you can’t be naive, you’ve got to be strong but you certainly don’t want to catch any innocent athletes … work will continue for sure.”
Anti-doping only as good as the weakest link
Anti-doping headlines have focussed on Russia since the 2014 Sochi Olympics and the revelations of systemic doping in the country.
The story also plays into Cold War politics and is an easy way to generate discussion.
But doping exists around the world, with less of a focus on smaller nations who may not have access to the same funds or technology to police doping adequately.
“One of our priorities is what we call program development and anti-doping will only be so good as the weakest link.
“It is extremely important for us to invest, to have time to develop anti-doping programs all around the world so that when athletes compete against each other, they know that their opponent has been submitted to the same kind of testing regime or anti-doping program that they have been.
“What we want is to help those countries that are less developed to get support from more developed countries, more developed NADOs [National Anti-Doping Agencies] so that we have this kind of program of mentoring.”
WADA has also recently established a partnership with a university in Montreal offering a Masters program for sports administrators looking to specialise in anti-doping hoping to empower those particularly from smaller nations.