Anti-doping watchdog wants more than it can handle

The World Anti-Doping Agency's push to expand its operations comes at a time when concerns are being raised over its performance.

Photo by: AP
Photo by: AP

Steven Colvert’s dream of competing at the Olympics were shattered in 2014 after he was accused of taking performance-enhancing drugs. Now new evidence suggests he might have been innocent.

Updated Oct 22, 2016

Irish sprinter Steven Colvert no longer believes science is right all the time.

He was a national champion who wanted to compete in the Olympics, but a routine test to check if he was using drugs to cheat came out positive.

That was two years ago. The sporting world blacklisted him and he was suspended. 

This month, a group of Norwegian researchers found that the result of lab tests of his urine sample might have been incorrect.

"I suppose science is not always black and white," he told TRT World. "Even the best scientists in the world can get it wrong."

WADA, the international organisation that goes after athletes who use performance-enhancing drugs to cheat, has yet to absolve Colvert from wrongdoing.

The video below goes into more detail on Colvert's case:

Colvert is just one of many athletes who have come forward in recent years with complaints against WADA, which is seeking to double its size using funding from the private sector as it takes over the role of national anti-doping authorities in various countries

It's the first time that WADA, established in 1999 after a barrage of sporting scandals, has sought private funding.

Up until recent it had relied on contributions from governments to meets its day-to-day expenses, which include the cost of testing athletes' blood and urine.

But its testing procedures are under scrutiny.

A history of controversial decisions

While doping scandals involving famous athletes such as tennis star Maria Sharapova and cyclist Lance Armstrong have rocked the sporting world, there are lesser-known incidents where athletes have been wrongly accused of taking performance boosting drugs.

Andreea Madalina Raducan, a former Romanian gymnast, was stripped of her gold medal soon after the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

She was suspended for taking a stimulant, pseudoephedrine, an ingredient of many anti-cold medicines.

She was only 16-years-old at the time and took pills containing the chemical on advice of her team's doctor in order to fight a common cold.

Her case went before the Court of Arbitration for Sports, where she was absolved from any wrongdoing. But her title was never restored.

British skier Alain Baxter is another example. He won the bronze medal in the 2002 Olympics, but his title was taken away after tests revealed the presence of levmetamfetamine, a form of the stimulant methamphetamine, in his body.

The drug is found in popular decongestants like Vicks nasal spray.

Many athletes, including skier Alain Baxter, have been wrongly accused of taking performance-enhancing drugs as the list of prohibited substances keeps on growing. (AP)

Baxter was able to prove that the ingredient came from the US version of Vicks nasal spray. But his appeal was rejected.

Is WADA indispensable?

The long and complicated list of prohibited drugs maintained by WADA leaves athletes vulnerable to being wrongly accused of doping.

Roger Pielke Jr of the Sports Governance Centre at the University of Colorado told TRT World a lot of research was needed to determine the performance-enhancing ability of the 300 drugs on the WADA list:

"We saw what happened in the case of Maria Sharapova where meldonium was involved. The science behind many of these drugs is not clear."

Meldonium, another ingredient found in medicines, was put on the list just months before Sharapova tested positive for it.

In an interview given to TRT World earlier this year, Dr. Paul Dimeo, a lecturer in sports policy at the University of Stirling, said that the system to check the use of drugs has become "very punitive."

Star athletes like Maria Sharapova can fight their case more effectively. Her suspension for using banned substance was recently reduced. (AP)

What makes the situation complicated is something called the strict liability principle, on which anti-doping rules rely. They make it the responsibility of the athlete to keep a tab on ingredients in medicines they use.

But the sporting world would be worse off without WADA, says Pielke:

"My sense is that recurring scandals reflect a demand for better governance. Twenty years ago not enough attention was being paid to doping."

Raising funds 

WADA's bid to raise money from private foundations, pharmaceutical companies and wealthy individuals comes as it tries to take over complete responsibility for testing athletes.

The agency receives an annual contribution of $29 million – half coming directly from governments and the rest from the International Olympics Committee. Much of it goes towards paying the salaries of its employees, laboratory testing fees and research grants.

Right now WADA depends on various sports federations and national anti-doping authorities for identifying and carrying out tests on the athletes.

But there are more than 600 organisations that follow WADA's guidelines, and it could be practically impossible for the agency to manage thousands of athletes on its own.

Author: Saad Hasan