Monday, 11 May 2009

The Emperor's New Clothes

It’s Christmas day morning and the Beckhams, David and Victoria, are up early watching their children open their presents. There comes a ring at the door. Is it Santa returning with an extra gift? Is it family on a Yuletide visit? The younger children hope to see Donner and Blitzen. Victoria opens the door and there is no Donner, no Blitzen, just the man from the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA), with test tubes and all, come to random test her husband at an allotted hour. Festive pleasantries are not exchanged.
A fantasy tale? Perhaps but it’s based on factual probability. It’s an example of the increasing infringement of the human rights of successful sportsmen and women, by the constant tightening of the “Whereabouts rule” where a sportsman or woman on the drug testing register has to signify a place and an hour of the day when he or she will be available 365 days of the year.
The playwright Arthur Miller, writing about his play, The Crucible, said that ever increasing Draconian penalties would lead us to a time when “the repressions of order were heavier than seemed warranted by the dangers against which the order was organised.” The World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) has reached that time. It has reached it because its autocratic president, John Fahey, insists that it’s new Whereabouts rule is not open to negotiation. Orwell, if he had been at all interested in sport (which he wasn’t), would have well understood this moment in its history.
Miller’s play is ostensibly about the witch trials in the village of Salem in 1692 when nineteen men and women and two dogs were convicted of witchcraft and hanged. It was also an allegory on an equally Manichean period in American history, the 1950s, when the proceedings of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) saw many men and women jailed or blacklisted from their work simply for their left-wing affiliations. Some committed suicide. Fear and paranoia stalked the land.
In the summer of 1990 I went to the National Theatre to see an excellent production of the play. The similarities with drug testing – the repressive measures, the innuendo, the fear and the hysterical outbursts - stirred within me a distinct unease about how drug abuse was being tackled in sport. My wife Gwenda and I discussed this during the interval, at dinner and on the way home and the conversation formed the basis of a chapter, Sporting Salem, in my book Athletics – The Golden Decade. Twenty years on that unease has not abated, quite the reverse.
But now a surprising voice is questioning the Whereabouts rule. In a Blog published on the website Inside the Games, Michelle Verroken, one time Head of Anti-Doping for UK Sport and a noted hardliner on drug taking, questions the ethics of the rule. She notes that the footballing authorities, FIFA and UEFA, together with other sporting organisations and indeed the European Union together with leading sportsmen are opposed to the rule in its new form. She writes:
“This is a point of principle...this is an issue about winning the hearts and minds of our athletes to support drug-free sport. I doubt if it is really having that kind of impact. Whereabouts could be the nemesis that turns the ‘drug free willing’ into the ‘whatever’ generation. Athletes are the target of anti-doping programmes in the same way they are the target of those who would seek ways around doping rules and supply performance enhancing drugs. The system relies upon athletes being on side.”
Fahey, along with other international and national sporting leaders, particularly Olympic president, Jacques Rogge, clearly fail to recognise this salient fact. Fahey’s “do what we say or else” stance is alienating many top sportsmen and women. The attitude of the authorities mirrors that of a drug tester who blew his top at an international athletics match many years ago and rounded on the assembled athletes impatiently waiting to be tested. Pointing a finger at each one he shouted “I think you’re on drugs, I think you’re on drugs...” For too long the attitude has been one of athletes having to prove themselves innocent rather than the authorities proving them guilty. The Diane Modahl case of the mid-nineties was a supreme example of such bias and injustice.
WADA, the IOC and certain governing bodies vigorously propagandize a drug menace threatening sport that they cannot quantify. Why? With a 2009 budget of almost 25 million US dollars, provided by Olympic associations and governments worldwide, WADA has to justify its existence. It has to convince its paymasters that the menace is so great that it threatens the integrity, the very soul of sport. And when President George W Bush in a State of the Union speech said in 2004 that the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports is dangerous and that performance is now more important than character you have to say that the propaganda is working.
The one-time British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli was credited with saying: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” I am not accusing WADA and other testing authorities of falsifying statistics but I am suggesting that they massage them for their propaganda purposes.
Dr Babette Pluim is a respected worldwide authority on medical matters relating to tennis. Writing last year in the British Journal of Sports Medicine she reported that in her sport there were internationally 40 positive findings between 2003 and 2007 but that in 67.5% of the cases the independent reviewing panels accepted that there was “no intent to enhance performance”. So when it comes to an intention to cheat, 40 positives drops to 13 over the five year period.
Immediately her case became public World and Olympic 400m champion Christine Ohuruogu was labelled a drug cheat not only by the tabloids but also by her own federation. She can bitterly attest to her shameful treatment after she was found guilty of missing three tests and banned for a year. She suffered such abuse even though those sitting in judgement were categorical in their belief that there was no intention on her part to enhance her performances.
There is an ever-expanding WADA list of banned substances that by 2009 has already reached proportions that no sportsman could possibly keep abreast of (thus increasing the chances of minor accidental positives inflating statistics). Asthmatic sufferers and others with genuine medical conditions now have to go through a complicated, bureaucratic procedure to acquire a TUE (Therapeutic Use Exemption). And, as another medical authority, the Australian Dr Tim Wood has pointed out: “I also experience the frustration at the paperwork required to allow players with genuine medical conditions to take legitimate, scientifically proven drugs that do not advance performance.” This is also now required to allow an athlete to have intravenous fluid during elective surgery. Has sport gone mad?
There have been many appalling injustices over the years: Andrea Raducian losing a gymnastics gold medal at the Sydney Olympics for taking a Sudafed tablet; Filippo Volandri banned for three months for ‘abuse of salbutamol’ in treating a particularly violent asthma attack. The Italian tennis player was not only banned but fined the equivalent of most of his 2008 prize money. In athletics, in 2003, Bernard Legat’s ‘A’ sample test showed positive for EPO; he withdrew from the World Championships in Paris and did not run in any of the lucrative Grand Prix meetings that season. His ‘B’ sample proved negative. It was a botched test.
Ask any one in Britain what they think about athletics and they will almost certainly refer to it being a drug infested sport. High profile cases like those of Dwain Chambers and more recently that of the now former Olympic 1500m champion Rashid Ramzi have certainly confirmed that view for many people. But the Chambers’ publicity was actually self-inflicted by the British federation naively and vainly attempting to ban him from competing in 2008 even though two years had elapsed since he had completed his two year sentence for taking banned substances. Chambers’ return to the sport sparked outcries and much public breast beating with ex-Olympians on TV and federation officials talking of a massive menace and a war on drugs. It has always been thus but those determined to keep the propaganda going in order to justify the enormous financial outlay, have studiously neglected to mention that between 2004 and 2008 British athletics produced, according to UK Sport, just two cases that violated WADA rules (presumably one of those was that of Ohuruogu) giving just 1.1 positive cases in 1000 tests .
Finally do the statistics justify the hundreds of millions of dollars, the bad publicity and the abuse of human rights created by WADA and the independent testing agencies in the developed world?
In 1997 (two years before WADA was set up) international athletics totalled 68 drug cases, 62% of which attracted the maximum ban. In 2007, with WADA in full swing, there were 67 cases, 60% of which warranted the maximum ban. Not much progress there then. During that period, at a conservative estimate, a quarter of a billion dollars has been spent across the globe fighting drugs in sport with systems and procedures that are clearly not infallible. But it seems that WADA and Fahey have finally overstepped the mark. In a recent interview the IOC President Jacques Rogge, whilst defending the principle of Whereabouts (“because there is so much doping”) said: “This is something to be discussed between WADA and the athletes and between WADA and FIFA and other team sports.”
Like Hans Christian Anderson’s Emperor sport has succumbed to its own propaganda and persuaded the rest of the world to go with it. It is forty-two years since British cyclist Tommy Simpson died from doping and heat on the slopes of Mont Ventoux in the Tour de France and not much progress seems to have been made in tackling doping in sport in the interim. Is it time for the IOC and the major international sports bodies to realise that WADA isn’t working, was a bad mistake and to urgently look at a completely new way of solving the problem? I think it surely is.


Anonymous said...

I seem to recall that a few weeks ago some National papers mentioned that the Spanish Govt said it would not accept the new WADA access proposals and that National rules were paramount

Anonymous said...

Humans have always taken drugs - to attain a state of bliss, to reach a state of spirituality or, more prosaically, to improve performance or physique. Past Olympic champions and record breakers have taken drugs that are now banned, the man in the street can treat a cough with over the counter drugs that are denied to international sports people.
There are inherent dangers in all forms of drug taking, from cigarettes to heroin. Wealthy drug addicts like William Burroughs can live a long life during which they continually indulge in drugtaking buffered from consequences by their wealth. Less wealthy drugtakers often slip down a spiral path to overdosing or disease.
If sport was to open itself to drugs the same problems would occur; the world class athlete would enjoy a level playing field, the gifted performer would still win, the sport would still throw up dramas and intense competition between world record holders. However, the less gifted or the aspiring young athlete would be prey to unscruplous dealers, unhygenic practices and street morals.
So, obviously, a deterent is necessary; so called recreational drug taking is largely illegal and drug dealing is definitely illegal but all the world's police forces cannot prevent it.
Sports people give up on certain pleasures and freedoms to be the best knowing that their years at the top are limited. Is it not worthwhile for them to waive some of their human rights for, what, six years, to be available for an hour a day to ensure that the playing field is level?
Of course, one needs to be sure that the testers are up to the job!