As the 2012 Summer Games in London approach, the fight against doping continues. Despite notable progress in testing and enforcement, we’re still a great distance from the eradication of steroid use in sports. In order to close the gap between the testers and the dopers, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) needs the help of both government and professional sports organizations.
Doping is cheating. Sports competition is supposed to be a measure of an athlete’s ability, honed by training and preparation, against other athletes who play by the same rules. Cheating devalues that competition. And I certainly don’t want my children or grandchildren to have to become chemical stockpiles in order to be competitive in sports.
The fight against doping is no easy game. For one thing, athletes have the first-move advantage. They decide what they’re going to do and when they’re going to do it. Officials, on the other hand, have to figure out how to catch them. While we have diminished the interval between the perpetration of doping and the point of detection, the need for rigorous testing programs and stiffer punishments for dopers remains paramount.
This is not to say there has not been progress in the fight against doping. Fewer athletes are getting through the cracks with the new tools at our disposal. The World Anti-Doping Code, for example, harmonizes anti-doping regulations across all sports and all countries of the world. Under the International Convention against Doping in Sport, there are real consequences for athletes and states that do not live up to their treaty obligations.
Nevertheless, doping still occurs. Why?
Well-financed, well-educated professionals are still assisting athletes in their doping practices. In some countries and in some sports, systematic programs are designed to aid dopers, or at least allow officials to turn a blind eye to their activity. WADA has already commented publicly on Russia and some of the former Soviet Republics, for example, where it is difficult to get in and test athletes on a no-notice basis. If these governments aren’t organizing these restrictive practices, they are at least making it difficult to enforce the existing rules.
Yet, obstacles to testing are only one part of the problem. Enforcement is also key to discouraging doping, and the surest way to improve enforcement is to get governments on side. Unlike sports authorities, public authorities have the investigative power needed to build cases, and the authority to enter private premises and seize doping substances. They are also better equipped to trace the sources and distribution of banned substances and prosecute those involved in what has become a huge market.
The bottom line is that significant sentences associated with the crimes make a much more effective deterrent for dopers. On a macro level, this is a far more effective way of getting at the problem than having athletes pee in bottles or provide blood samples and hoping that you get the timing right.
While public authorities can help deter dopers by taking a more involved role in these efforts, sports federations outside of the Olympics must also be fully on board in this fight. A lot of sports federations talk a pretty good game about clean sport but don’t actually care to take the necessary actions to make sure their sport is clean.
Professional sports leagues, in particular, are sending a horrible message with testing programs that are almost designed to make sure that no athlete is caught or that, if an athlete is caught, the penalty is light. Due to insufficient testing regimes and poor enforcement strategies, dopers know they are unlikely to get caught and that if they do, their suspension will be short. When compared to the four- to five-year benefits that an athlete can garner from a steroids program, this is almost an invitation to dope.
Even worse than the direct impact this laissez-faire approach to eradicating doping has on sports competition is how it affects public perception. The athletes that the public see, day after day, are the professionals, not the amateur Olympians, so the standards of conduct that young kids are learning are rotten. Young athletes figure they have to dope to get to the top, and that the price of getting caught is just a slap on the wrist. This is not the message professional sports organizations should be sending to young athletes.
If we want future Games to be clean, we will certainly need our governments and sports authorities to sing from the same song sheet and show the public they are serious about solving the problem.
By Richard Pound
Richard Pound is partner of the law firm Stikeman Elliott, the former president of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), and the former vice-president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).