Tokyo Olympics: How effective will doping controls be?

Sports Wednesday 21/July/2021 06:07 AM
By: DW
Tokyo Olympics: How effective will doping controls be?
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Tokyo: To say preparations for the upcoming Olympics and Paralympics have not been ideal would be a significant understatement. After the postponement last year came further waves of the coronavirus, with the latest forcing Tokyo to enter a state of emergency earlier this month.

The decision means fans will not be able to attend events in the Japanese capital, though as things stand, venues in the Fukushima, Miyagi and Shizuoka regions will be allowed to host spectators up to 50% of capacity with an absolute ceiling of 10,000 people. Even before this, going ahead with the Olympics was opposed by a majority of the public, according to various media polls.

One of the countless knock-on effects of the pandemic on the Games has been the potential for it to offer opportunities for athletes seeking to illegally gain a competitive advantage through doping.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was forced to dramatically reduce out-of-competition testing at the height of the first wave last year. For example, the WADA website reports that only 578 blood/urine samples were taken worldwide in April 2020, compared with 25,219 during the same month in 2019.

"The drop in testing could have allowed some athletes to dope in preparation for the Games but it's more complex than just having a test-free window," Dr. April Henning, an anti-doping expert, author and lecturer at the University of Stirling in Scotland, told DW.

"Many athletes won't dope even if they have the chance to do so undetected. Those athletes who were already going to dope or were doping already may have had an advantage — assuming they would have been tested during that period, which is definitely not a given — by knowing there was little or no chance of being tested. That use could aid performance in Tokyo.

Testing times

"But doping at the elite level is more likely (though not exclusively, of course) to be planned and timed to ensure benefits can be gained. During the lockdowns, even elites struggled to train effectively and that could have reduced the likely benefit of many doping substances."    

WADA also reports that testing levels are now close to being back to normal, despite the spread of the delta variant of COVID-19, with Japan now among the countries concerned about its effects.

"The rise of testing numbers around the world represents a significant effort on the part of Anti-Doping Organizations in light of the ongoing pandemic," read a recent statement from WADA's director general, Olivier Niggli.

But the circumstances surrounding the upcoming Games may give testers an even tougher time than normal. Athletes are often a step ahead of anti-doping authorities, particularly in the lead-up to big events, with most doping penalties handed down years after. For this reason, anti-doping agencies are required to keep their results for 10 years.

During the upcoming Games, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has handed over control of their anti-doping program to the International Testing Agency (ITA), based in Switzerland, though they insist they "remain responsible" for clamping down on the dopers.

The ITA, which will be overseen by WADA, and work with domestic agencies and the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), describe themselves as an independent non-profit organization, and say they will be "leading the most extensive anti-doping program for Tokyo 2020 that has ever been implemented for an edition of the Olympic Games."

In Tokyo, an ITA team of 24 managers will be supervising 250 doping control officers (DCOs) and roughly 700 chaperones (who notify athletes and accompany them to the doping control stations). About half of these will be drawn from the Japanese Anti-Doping Agency (JADA), and the other half from elsewhere.

They are expected to collect around 5,000 urine and blood samples from a pool of over 11,000 Olympians and more than 4,000 Paralympians over the course of the Games. The ITA describes these as being "targeted and unannounced."

Business as usual

"Adapting our activities to the changing framework due to Covid-19 is indeed challenging, but with the postponement of the Games we were able to gain important experience on how to deal with these circumstances," the ITA said in a written statement to DW.

"The doping controls will be conducted in full respect of the appropriate safety and hygiene measures as described in the relevant IOC playbook and in strict compliance with all regulations enacted by the Japanese health authorities to protect both athletes and the anti-doping workforce."