November 22, 2004

Dick Pound Stays On at WADA

This isn't meant to be my diary of doping news, and I hope it doesn't turn out that way. But there was some news from the World Anti-Doping Agency yesterday, and that gives me an excuse to write about WADA in the bigger picture.

The lead item in the Canadian media (e.g. The Globe and Mail) was that WADA chairman Dick Pound was re-elected for another three-year term. Mr. Pound has been WADA chairman since the inception of the organization. He was unopposed. In the rest of the world, the story ran under headlines announcing a budget increase of 1.5M USD for 2005.

There were other announcements from WADA, including the election of a new vice-chairman, the formation of an athletes' working committee, and the accreditation of a new testing laboratory.

WADA's Law-And-Order Approach

WADA was created with several "objects" in its charter, among them to reinforce ethical principles, protect the health of athletes, and develop education and prevention programmes. Mostly, though, the agency spends its time and money promoting tougher and more consistent rules and more vigorous enforcement. Mr. Pound himself seems to favour this get-tough approach. He is at his most enthusiastic when he is discussing the crime-and-punishment aspects of his anti-doping work, and he has been criticized at times for making public accusations or even threats of punishment without proof.

The Goldman Survey

Whenever the subject of drugs in sport comes up, you are almost certain to hear about Robert Goldman's survey of elite athletes. Goldman published the results in his book Death in the Locker Room II: Drugs and Sports (1992, Elite Sports Medicine Publications). The most-cited result is often used to demonstrate that high-performance athletes will do anything to win. Goldman asked athletes if they would take a one-time dose of an undetectable substance that would guarantee victory in every competition, if the consequence was certain death at the end of five years. According to Goldman, more than 50% (103 out of 198) said that they would.

The survey itself has never been submitted to a peer review, and has never been published. It is unlikely that Goldman's methods would stand up to scientific scrutiny, and the 50% number is vigorously disputed by other experts. The result, unfortunately, has attained the status of an urban legend.

The WADA web site contains numerous references to a "fight against doping in sport." I can't help but be reminded of the War On Drugs. That "War" has also led to numerous get-tough measures, including mandatory minimum sentencing and so-called three-strikes laws. So the question this raises in my mind is: are stiffer penalties and tougher enforcement going to win the fight against doping?

Currently, although WADA is still working towards a uniform drug code across all sports in all countries, the basic penalties for doping are a two-year ban from competition for a first offense, and a lifetime ban from competition for a second offense. There are variations depending on the substance detected, but these are the usual punishments for the most severe infractions. On top of this, results can be annulled if a positive test occurs in competition (and sometimes even when it doesn't).

The Goldman survey (see box inset) is sometimes used to support the claim that even the most severe penalties can have no deterrent value. Flaws in the study aside, I am not sure that this logic is sound. What the Goldman results illustrate is that for some elite athletes, sporting glory is more important than almost anything else. The guarantee of getting away with the drug use is a key factor that is sometimes overlooked. More than anything else, the current doping penalities threaten a loss of glory, and that may indeed have a significant deterrent effect. By this logic, the annullment of competition results (medals and world records) is actually a more significant deterrent than any suspension.

On the other hand, my impression is that doping recidivism is pretty high (I haven't been able to find any statistics on this). If true, that would indicate that suspensions don't do much to rehabilitate the offenders. However, they still serve the purpose of removing known cheaters from competition.

Fundamentally, I believe that the majority of athletes, even at the highest levels, are honest, and want to win while playing within the rules. For these athletes the threat of being publicly labelled a cheater is the best deterrent available. There are, of course, a small number who want to win at any cost. I don't know how (or even if) athletes suffering from this "condition" can be treated; banning them from competition is a brutal but effective solution. Of course, you have to catch them first.

Some athletes, slightly apart from the hard-core cheaters, resort to doping because they see cheating around them and believe that they must use drugs in order to level the playing field. WADA can help to eliminate doping in this group, by making them believe that the cheaters are going to get caught. From this point of view, effective testing that catches a very high percentage of cheaters is much more important than the penalties that are handed down.

WADA Aiming at Doctors?

Dick Pound also turned up in this story by Alan Panzieri in the National Post (subscription required) last week. The athletes' commission of the IOC has proposed that athletes should be required to name their personal coach and their doctor on their doping-control forms. Currently, it is a doping offense to prescribe, administer, or encourage use of performance-enhancing substances, but it is usually difficult to link the guilty athlete to the responsible coaches and doctors. The Post story intimates that Pound and WADA would consider the modified form to be an aid to prosecuting those who support and conceal doping.

I realize that a charge of cheating does not carry the same burden of proof as a criminal trial, but personally I think that this strays too far from the principle that the accused is innocent until proven guilty. Pound is quoted in the article as saying that it "strains credulity" to believe that a coach or doctor doesn't know "everything that is going on" with an athlete. Based on my personal experience, it doesn't strain my credulity at all, especially as far as doctors are concerned.

During my years on the national team, Dr. Don McKenzie served as our team doctor. Dr. McKenzie is a staunch opponent of doping and is currently the chair of the ICF medical committee; you could not find a more responsible or ethical doctor in any sport. However, there is no way that Dr. McKenzie could control or take responsibility for the actions of all of the athletes on the team. Had any one of us decided to use a banned substance, it would have been relatively easy to hide it from the doctor. In fact, Dr. McKenzie's well-known stance against doping would have encouraged concealment. And if a cheater found another doctor who was willing to provide advice or drugs, he or she would be unlikely to name that doctor on their doping-control form.

Of course team doctors do have an influence over and a responsibility for the athletes in their care, and crooked doctors are part of the doping problem. But most team doctors don't live with the athletes, and usually don't even see them on a weekly basis unless there is a health concern. In my opinion, a positive dope test provides proof of an athlete's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The culpability of the team doctor, on the other hand, is much less certain. Does your doctor know about everything that you put into your body? Certainly, it would be great if we could catch and punish those doctors that are administering organized doping programs, but we must be careful not to tangle up a large number of innocent doctors in the same net.

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