Going whereabouts

Tim Springett looks at the latest edict from the World Anti-Doping Agency and its implications for football

If ever there was a topic that cried out for rational debate, it is the issue of drug use by sports people. Sadly, rationality has long since been buried under a tidal wave of self-righteousness. Even though football has far from the worst record of participants seeking to gain an illicit advantage through drugs, it seems constantly to be first in line for the bile of commentators and opinion-formers whenever the subject is raised. The usual mantra – that football’s procedures for drug testing lag way behind other sports – has been repeated so often it seems almost pointless to question it. To this can be added the well-known fact that every professional footballer is an overpaid prima donna.

Thus the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), a foundation funded jointly by the International Olympic Committee and numerous governments, can usually rely upon receiving favourable publicity for its work. Any sportspeople daring to criticise whatever the latest “get tough” initiative may be are generally assumed to have something to hide – otherwise, what would they have to fear from ever more frequent and invasive testing?

Now, however, it is possible that WADA has finally overstepped the mark. While in-competition drug testing has been accepted into most sports, with varying degrees of grudging, WADA is now pushing for the universal application of a new code that will greatly extend the testers’ remit. Central to this is the “whereabouts” rule, under which sports people must inform drug test authorities where they will be for one hour each day – including holidays – and can be randomly tested at any time. Allied to this are stronger sanctions for those who fail to report for tests, with a missed test being treated in the same way as a positive one. This would have caused Rio Ferdinand to be banned from playing for the maximum two years, as opposed to the eight-month suspension applied in 2004.

It is, however, the “whereabouts” rule that has attracted the lion’s share of the attention. The dissenters include not only the predictable voices of Sepp Blatter, Michel Platini and Gordon Taylor, but also tennis stars Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, more than 60 Belgian athletes – whose association, Sporta, is taking legal action – and the European Union, which considers that the rule is incompatible with the right to privacy as enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. Not that this is cutting any ice with WADA’s unapologetic chief executive, John Fahey, who cites support that the code has attracted from ­athletes and swimmers.

Given the criticism – and the threat of legal proceedings – it is surely time to review where testing procedures are leading. The aim appears increasingly to be to catch and expose cheats – and Fahey’s words do little to dispel this. But the original purpose of drug misuse policies was to protect competitors, by ensuring that they were not given substances that could damage their health. This aim must remain central to procedures and codes for eliminating doping. With the potential rewards in football now so high, it becomes tempting to try just about anything that might improve performance – with potentially horrendous consequences for long-term health, particularly of young aspirants.

The idea that “performance enhancers” are some kind of evil that must be banished from sport ignores the reality. As sports science has advanced, there has been greater recognition of the importance of nutrition to performance, with the result that the diet of the average player at any level of professional football has vastly improved. This inevitably reaches a point at which other substances potentially play a role – witness the use of Viagra by a team in Bolivia to help them cope better with the altitude of La Paz. The key is to identify those that are potentially harmful. How does the whereabouts test assist in this? It appears to be simply yet another extension of the surveillance under which society is now expected to operate.

A big advantage of WADA readopting the protection of competitors as its primary objective is that it would have a much easier time gaining the support of sports people and their governing bodies. A reasonable starting point could be the publication of a list of substances that are permitted – that might encourage pharmaceutical companies to work with the anti-doping agencies to identify what performance enhancers are safe to administer, along with age and dosage limits. Certainly an alternative is needed to the current, guilty-until-proven-innocent attitude, which has more to do with catching out and demonising the very people the programme should be looking after. The ongoing confrontation between WADA and FIFA, UEFA and the rest is inappropriate and destructive. On the issue of eliminating the use of harmful substances from sport, they should surely be speaking with one voice.

From WSC 268 June 2009