Doping: The dark side of sport

DAVID HOWMAN: The WADA secretary general.
DAVID HOWMAN: The WADA secretary general.

The fight for clean sport is at a crossroads.

After the biggest drugs scandal in sporting history with the Lance Armstrong saga, next November in Johannesburg sees the global community decide on landmark changes to the World Anti-Doping Code.

On the table are serious punishments, with a proposal to double the ban on "explicit" first-time offences from two to four years - effectively blocking cheats from the next Olympic Games.

The World Anti-Doping Agency [Wada] also wants increased policing power and the authority to work with global governments - forcing meaningful, independent investigations and shining light into a murky underground network.

And much of it is to do with one man.

"People have seen the success on Lance Armstrong - it seems to have made quite an impression," David Howman said from Montreal, Canada.

"Athletes want stronger penalties, many people in sport do, and governments seem to be getting along with it, so far."

While Armstrong is the undoubted central figure in this sorry story, others athletes, and more alarmingly, nations, have been getting away with suspicious behaviour around doping for some time. Disgraced Olympic shot putter Nadzeya Ostapchuk and her native Belarus tick both boxes.

Before Ostapchuk brought shame on herself, twice testing positive for steroids at London 2012, she disappeared off the world track and field circuit for months.

Competing only in Belarus, she produced a series of huge throws in the runup to the Games. Her throws were not only beyond Valerie Adams, who Ostapchuk hadn't beaten in over two years, while the New Zealander was winning on the fiercely regulated Diamond League circuit, but throws representing some of the biggest distances of all time. Anti-doping agents are known to have experienced border issues in some countries, including neighbouring Russia and North Korea, and in the aftermath of Ostapchuk being stripped of gold by the International Olympic Committee, Adams' coach Jean-Pierre Egger said he believes Belarus is actually helping athletes avoid the drug net.

Howman agrees some in the system need "extra persuasion" to be transparent.

"In the past, really, Wada's had little teeth. At the end of the day, if people don't do what we suggest there's not much we can do about it," he said.

"The best example is a topical one, it involves Kenya. We've been to Kenya and said ‘there's allegations about what's going in your country and it should be looked into. We suggest you get an independent commission involved and you look at it'.

"Nothing's happened. Going forward, if we had some authority, we'd be able to say ‘if you don't do it, we will set it up and send you the bill'.

"If there's only an approach of a slap across the face with a wet bus ticket, it won't inspire people to do anything. Just an extra bit of persuasion might help."

If Wada's recommendations are passed in November 2013's vote, it will be too late to impact Ostapchuk - whose lenient one-year ban from Belarusian authorities is still yet to be challenged by world governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations.

But in the long-term, Howman says changes to the doping code can make a significant difference - and so far there's been no opposition.

"We haven't heard of any negative reaction, certainly not in terms of the increased penalties," he said.

"We think a result, if these changes go through, will be a little more emphasis on gathering information and investigations, including the ability for Wada to do that. It's a direct crossover with governments, that's why we've got the link with Interpol and so on."

However, Howman says the war against drugs in sport, and cheating in general, faces a problem the Wada code can't fix.

"Battles will be won on a regular basis, but there's a bigger issue. Are we breeding a society where there's more cheats? That's the societal issue which needs to be looked at."