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Is WADA’s Goal of Worldwide Doping-Free Sport a Pipe Dream?

When the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) was established in 1999 to lead a collaborative worldwide movement for doping-free sport, perhaps it elicited hope among sports fans and competitors alike. Cheating could be rooted out from sport! We’d finally have a level playing field. In the decades since WADA’s founding, the goal of doping-free sport has been difficult to achieve. Is this goal a pipe dream that will never see the light of day?

Doping in sport exists for a multitude of reasons. A shot at glory, the ease with which one can mask their drug use and certain organisations’ lack of commitment when it comes to enforcing anti-doping. One of these organisations is the International Fitness and Bodybuilding Federation (IFBB), formerly known as the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness. The IFBB claims it is strongly committed to the fight against drugs but it is widely understood that there is rampant steroid use at the professional level. The IFBB turns a blind eye to steroid use while claiming doping is against their principles of healthy lifestyle. Despite a recent spate of professional bodybuilder deaths, the IFBB continues to sanction competitions such as the Olympia, the highest profile bodybuilding competition in the world in which athletes have openly discussed their steroid cycles.

In what may be perceived as comical, the IFBB is a signatory to WADA’s World Anti-Doping Code, yet it is currently listed as non-compliant. And for many, the mere pretense that the IFBB is attempting to crack down on doping is likely viewed as inconceivable, disrespectful and insulting to the intelligence of those with a knowledge of the industry. It is, after all, just another one of the many problems in the fitness industry.

Diagram showing that the IFBB is a signatory to the WADA World Anti-Doping Code but is currently listed as non-compliant.
The IFBB is a signatory to WADA’s code but is listed as non-compliant.

Many people have also lost confidence in WADA over the years, with one of the biggest hits to the organisation’s credibility coming from the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics Russian state-run doping controversy. In 2016 claims were made that numerous Russian athletes were part of an institutional doping program in which around 100 ‘dirty’ urine samples were replaced with clean samples.

The lengths to which the Russian team went to cover up doping is bewildering. Urine samples from the official urine sample room were passed through a small hole in the wall to what was thought to be a regular storage room, but instead was converted into a makeshift laboratory by the Russian team. The dirty samples were emptied out and replaced with athlete urine samples that had been collected months before.

Diagram showing how urine samples from the official urine sample room were passed through a small hole in the wall to what was thought to be a regular storage room, but instead was converted into a makeshift laboratory by the Russian team.
Urine samples were passed through a small hole in the wall to a makeshift laboratory by the Russian team. (Source: New York Times)

These claims were later confirmed and the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) was deemed non-compliant with WADA’s code and suspended. However WADA later signalled its intention to reinstate RUSADA on two conditions: accepting the conclusions of the McLaren report that stated “The Moscow Laboratory operated, for the protection of doped Russian athletes” and the granting of access to Moscow’s anti-doping labs. As these two conditions were not met, this led to a scathing attack on WADA.

The Movement for a Credible Cycling (MPCC) criticized WADA, calling for it to show more independence, reminding it that its primary role is to uphold clean athletes and stating that the MPCC refused to be complicit in WADA’s dubious decisions. WADA’s reputation has subsequently suffered and the organisation has placed a spotlight on the need for more resources.

In 2022 WADA’s approved budget stood at $46 million and over the years the organisation has continued to appeal for more funding. A large part of the problem lies with detection. It is generally understood that if you or your doctor knows what they are doing, passing a drug test is easy business. An argument one often hears from people defending a particular athlete is that he or she gets drug tested regularly, so they must be clean. However a regularly used counter-argument is that Lance Armstrong got tested regularly and never failed a drug test. In his interview with Oprah in 2013 he admitted to taking banned substances for all of his 7 Tour de France wins.

Lance Armstrong racing in the Tour de France
Lance Armstrong (left) never failed a drugs test.

Detection efficiency can be hampered if an athlete has been advised how much drugs to take and when to stop taking it. By the time a test comes round, there won’t be any trace compounds in the athlete’s body. Racial differences can also make a difference to whether someone passes a drug test. To detect if an athlete has injected themselves with testosterone, WADA looks at the testosterone/epitestosterone ratio or the T/E ratio. If the T/E ratio is greater than 4, we can assume the athlete has been doping. But research has shown that some groups such as East Asians take a prolonged time to excrete testosterone, which means that testosterone in urine samples will remain low. It also means that an athlete could inject themselves with testosterone but still have a T/E ratio lower than 4.

More sophisticated drug testing exists such as the Carbon Isotope Ratio test, but it comes at a cost of $400 per test, making it financially unfeasible to administer it to every competitive athlete. Financial obstacles aside, what does this mean for WADA when it doesn’t even have confidence in its own testing? In the Report to WADA Executive Committee on Lack of Effectiveness of Testing Programs, the Working Group admitted that drug testing programs have been unsuccessful in catching out dopers. Interestingly the report pointed out that the problem isn’t with the science. Contrary to what others proclaim about undetectable drugs and ineffective testing methods, WADA says the real problem comes down to human behaviour and politics.

The Working Group also said WADA is at fault because it doesn’t have the inclination to name and shame. It also puts blame on governments that don’t have the political commitment to enforce anti-doping and those that don’t provide access to out-of-competition testing. In an acknowledgement of its own weakness, the Working Group explained that new drugs and delivery methods are being used that WADA doesn’t have tests for.

Man injecting steroids into his arm
Detection methods are having to catch up to new drugs and delivery methods.

As a result of this seemingly insurmountable battle against doping, some people are turning against anti-doping itself. The argument goes as follows. Although anti-doping is supposed to create a level playing field, the current state-of-play does nothing of the sort. If we do away with anti-doping, we know athletes will be doping, but at least each of them will have the opportunity to take drugs without being banned. Now that’s a much more level playing field than having some athletes clean and other athletes enhanced.

And so, one can hypothesize… what if WADA’s approved budget were doubled? Would it make a difference? All the money in the world could be spent and there’d likely still be attempts to cheat the system. High level sport is a cocktail of intense competition and life-changing opportunity. Coupled with an understanding that your fellow competitors might be on some form of illegal performance enhancement, should you take a banned substance yourself? It’s not cheating if everyone else is doing it, right? It could be the difference between not even qualifying for a competition and the chance for high earnings, recognition and lucrative sponsorships. For an athlete, doping can change their life.

But while WADA and other agencies’ anti-doping systems are imperfect, they have opened the world’s eyes to the problems of international sporting competition. Out of the top ten 100m sprinters with the fastest times, seven have been charged with doping. Anti-doping can’t catch everyone, but it seems naïve to assume that all who haven’t been caught are clean. It means we can watch sports with a better understanding that the person who wins isn’t necessarily the person who deserves to win. It also means we know we have a lot more work to do before we can truly achieve a drug-free sporting world. It gives the global sporting community something to strive for and lets athletes know that the secret many of them want to brush under the carpet is really no secret at all.

A lot of athletes won’t be taking performance enhancing drugs themselves but under the instructions of a doctor, who quite possibly has administered drugs to hundreds of other athletes and knows the ins and outs of avoiding detection. WADA’s job is made much more difficult and the goal of doping-free sport feels that much farther away when drug administration is facilitated by the watch of a competent doctor. Dr Rodchenkov, one of the world’s top experts in performance enhancing drugs, once saidAll athletes are like small children. They’ll put anything you give them into their mouths.

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