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Opinion

How World Athletics is trying to tackle doping at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics

(Photo by Stanislav Kogiku/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Roar Guru
18th July, 2021
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While some athletes still use illegal performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), I refute the suggestion that the Tokyo Olympic Games (OG) will be amongst the dirtiest ever games.

I argue this despite the World Anti-Doping Agency reporting a 50 per cent decline in drug tests in 2020, with this lower level still representing 167,759 tests across all sports for the year.

I focus on the sport of athletics to argue my case.

First, while it is likely that some athletes were tempted to take advantage of lower drug testing rates in 2020 due to coronavirus, all athletes remained subject to heavy scrutiny on the basis of substantial testing and having to provide whereabouts details.

With the International Olympic Committee noting that the pace of testing “was almost back to normal during the second part of the year”, the Athletics Integrity Unit (which tests for World Athletics) also reported that 60 per cent of its planned out-of-competition testing during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 went ahead.

During 2020, the Athletics Integrity Unit’s Registered Testing Pool (RTP), which tests the top 10 to 15 male and female athletes in each athletics discipline, collected 4,767 samples from 1,177 athletes with 4,204 out-of-competition tests. This included testing 784 elite athletes from 79 countries.

In other words, leading track and field athletes ran the same considerable risk as the 2019 male 100m world champion Christian Coleman and 2019 female 400m world champion Salwa Eid Naser who were both banned for violating article 2.4 of the anti-doping rules, which relates to “any combination of three missed tests and/or filing failures”.

Second, taking PEDs in 2020 and stopping in late 2020 or early 2021 when greater testing resumed, is unlikely to give you lasting benefit.

While the literature suggests that the benefits of PED use can last for many years, with one study arguing that power lifters who have stopped taking steroids had an advantage in their sport years after, there is little data that can quantify gains made on PEDs and losses once the PEDs were stopped under the same training protocol.

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There are few athletes that would reveal the truth about the rate of improvement and decline from PED use, as such admissions would ruin their reputation.

My own considerable observation of PED use by bodybuilders, powerlifters and athletes concludes that most strength gains are lost within three to four months once the effective dose ends.

This is why Ben Johnson ran a best of 6.57 for the 60m in his comeback to competition during 1991 and 1992 after his two-year drug ban, despite running 6.41 during 1987.

Johnson, who ran 5.65 for the 55m in 1993 (just 0.04 outside the world record), would only do so by using testosterone that was exposed by a failed drug test at the same meeting.

Third, we can observe the recent efforts of World Athletics to test athletes in the nations with dubious or lacking testing protocols.

The Japanese National Flag over the Olympic Rings symbol

(Photo by Stanislav Kogiku/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

It has been a gradual process, perhaps beginning before Sebastian Coe was elected president of the IAAF in 2015 with his determination to adopt independent drug testing after it was reported that a third of medals awarded in endurance events at the Olympics and World Championships between 2001 and 2012 were won by athletes who had suspicious test results at a time when blood transfusions and EPO micro-doses were used to boost the red cell count.

For example, with Jamaica virtually having no out-of-competition testing in the six months before the 2012 London OG, and blood tests only beginning in Jamaica during 2015, the Jamaica Anti-Doping Commission was given greater resources to lift its game.

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March 2021 data shows that Jamaica conducted 249 blood and 69 urine out-of-competition tests over the previous 12 month period.

And with considerable concern about Kenyan athletes in recent years, greater testing efforts has resulted in around 50 top Kenyan athletes testing positive for banned PEDs in recent years, including the 2008 Olympic and 2011, 2013 and 2015 world champion Asbel Kiprop at the 1500m.

New doping regulations require Kenyan athletes to take at least three out-of-competition tests within 10 months of a major championship and at least three weeks apart.

Only this week Kenya was forced to drop two runners from its Olympic team days ago because they had not undertaken the required number of out-of-competition doping tests, including the 18-year-old Kamar Etiang who surprised to finish second in the 1500m at the trials in a personal-best time.

In recent years, with countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Ukraine and Belarus identified at greater risk of doping, targeted countries are required to have their athletic federations provide adequate drug-testing plans prior to any World Championships or Olympic Games.

Hence, the AIU has the power to investigate national federations for breaches of the new obligations, require them to cooperate with any investigation, and monitor their compliance with the rules.

Of course, any testing regime can always be improved.

Why not extend the statute of limitations under the Olympic Charter to retest samples beyond the current eight years to put even more fear into athletes tempted to cheat with banned PEDs?

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The US lead of making public information about those tested should be emulated by World Athletics to encourage national support for the process and provide greater attention to those athletes not being tested.

Given that the benefits of PEDs last for many weeks after their use, World Athletics could uphold the International Testing Agency’s group recommendation that up to six drug tests are performed in the six months prior to an OG, despite the average annual cost of funding an athlete in the RTP already being around $US10,500 as of 2019.

I argue this despite the International Testing Agency only beginning to test athletes heading for Tokyo on May 13, although this late start was much better than the 2016 Rio OG where over 1,900 athletes across 10 key sports were not tested in the months before in line with the previous OG practice where athletes are only tested after arriving at the games.

Of course, I am not naïve enough to suggest that the task of stopping illegal PED use is close.

The fact that top athletes continue to be caught shows that some are still willing to cheat, or at best are not prepared to concede any possible advantage to other athletes.

But to suggest that the Tokyo OG is one of the dirtiest ever is a nonsense and a blight on the recent efforts of World Athletics to encourage a cleaner sport.

I am in agreement with World Athletics President Sebastian Coe who argues that track and field competitors who are doping have a “greater chance of being caught” at the Tokyo Olympics than previous OGs as the independent AIU is not fearful of reputation, is fearless, uses the latest technology, and is much more intelligence-led through the employment of sophisticated international investigators.

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