This is a new and interesting piece from Cathal Dennehy, one of our sport’s most articulate and thoughtful journalists. Cathal thought this would be a strong piece on which to end his coverage of the 2023 World Outdoor Athletics Championships. Cathal Dennehy based this feature on “many interesting bits from the press conference during the WC with Brett Clothier and David Howman and the direction the anti-doping fight is taking in the sport.”

The complicated story of anti-doping, how The Athletics Integrity Units cleans up our sport, by Cathal Dennehy

It’s one of the great ironies of the anti-doping fight that the more ground that is gained in that battle, the cleaner things become in a sport, and the worse its public perception becomes.

It’s not how it should be, of course, but it’s often, regrettably, how it is.

But those who follow this game of hide and seek between drug testers and dopers, between cops and robbers, know that the view the public has of how clean or dirty a sport maybe is not really a function of how many participants are cheating, but how much desire there is among authorities to expose it.

After all, athletics, like cycling, once lived a grand delusion.

Just think back to the 1980s, when drug testing was still in its infancy. To look at the number of athletes being banned back then – very, very few, despite all we know about what was occurring – as the sole measure of a sport’s credibility would be as unwise and misleading then as it would be today.

These days, the news that the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) has banned yet another athlete tends to be greeted with a shrug unless it’s an A-list name, and the frequency of such transgressions can easily lead to sweeping generalizations about the state of the sport. But despite the slew of athletes sanctioned in recent years, the reality is it’s in a far, far better place than it’s been for a few decades.

It’s just over six years since World Athletics (then the IAAF) founded the AIU, setting up a body that would operate independently, as it must, given the potential for a conflict of interest that became all too apparent during the reign of former IAAF President Lamine Diack.

Seb Coe recruited David Howman to chair the AIU – a heavy hitter in the anti-doping world who had spent more than a decade as Director General of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). In the years since, the AIU has banned some of the sport’s biggest names, racking up an astonishing number of convictions, particularly in Kenya, with stars like Asbel Kiprop among those joining the hall of shame.

In Budapest last month, midway through the World Championships, Howman sat with Brett Clothier, Head of the AIU, and took questions from the world’s media for over an hour on all things anti-doping. One of the first things he addressed was the efficiency of drug tests.

“Testing is no longer about numbers; it’s (about) quality testing,” said Howman. “It’s $1000 to analyze a test. Anyone can walk down the road and pick people up, test people, and bulk up the numbers; we don’t do that. It’s to ensure those who need to be tested are tested at the right time at the right place. It’s not done by too many others.”

The AIU recently released its annual report for 2022, and the numbers within it are impressive, given the limited resources it has, with more than 10,000 samples collected from athletes from 136 nations, with tests conducted at more than 300 competitions. The AIU has 839 athletes in its registered testing pool from 93 countries, and about two-thirds of the samples were collected out of competition.

That’s a crucial tenet of any proper testing regime, given the biggest benefits of doping are gained not during the competitive season but during the preparatory phase, where illicit substances allow athletes to recover quicker between hard workouts, raising the quantity of quality work their bodies can tolerate.

In 2022, there were a total of 349 doping cases in athletics: 262 national cases, 87 international. While most of those were still pending when the report was released, the majority of completed cases resulted in a sanction – 105 out of 168 cases, with the remainder either atypical findings or cases that resulted in no violation.

So, what violations are occurring most often?

Steroids account for close to half of the adverse analytical findings, with specified substances next and then the blood-boosting drug EPO and its variants. Of course, athletes can also be banned due to whereabouts failures, with three strikes in a 12-month period resulting in a suspension.

While that undoubtedly presents opportunities for cheating athletes to game the system – consciously skipping tests while using doping products until they’ve racked up two strikes – such leeway is necessary given many clean athletes miss tests or have filing failures simply due to carelessness, changing life circumstances or due to a lapse in the constant communication that is required.

“There are missed test rules because some athletes deliberately avoid being tested,” said Clothier. “The problem with doping substances is they could be micro-dosing or certain substances that could be out of the system in a matter of hours. It’s obviously very challenging, but the overwhelming majority don’t find any difficulties complying with (the whereabouts rules). They support the system as we’re there to weed out dopers.”

The numbers support the view that one test is easily missed. Three, not so much.

“In a 12-month period, we had 140 athletes out of the 800 who had one whereabouts failure,” said Clothier. “You had 16 who had two, and then, from 16, we had one who had three in a 12-month period. A certain proportion may have one a year, but very few have three.”

The whereabouts system places an undoubted burden on athletes’ private lives, one that those in team sports typically don’t have to subject themselves to, but those who care about clean sports understand the importance of 24/7, unannounced testing. As Howman noted: “Andy Murray made a fuss when it was introduced in 2006-2007, but he’s changed his view.”

The net result has been a more level playing field, with clean athletes holding a far better shot at the medal rostrum than they did 10, 20 or 30 years ago – which isn’t to suggest the problem has gone away.

Of course, there seems little doubt that some innocent athletes were snared in the net in the bid to root out cheats. Deciding who they are is so often influenced by national or personal allegiances or how credible an athlete seems when they cry innocence. The reality is that as advanced as testing has become, there is still a whole lot of variance, vested interests, and subjective decision-making at play.

One of the most troubling cases this year was that of 800m runner Peter Bol, who was provisionally suspended for a positive A sample for EPO, but he was exonerated by Sport Integrity Australia after his B sample came back negative.

“The worst thing that could happen is what happened in that case,” said Howman in Budapest. “We must ensure that the process can be reviewed and re-conducted in a way that doesn’t end up in such a disaster. It’s not fair to the athlete. We accept that.

“What we have to do is ensure that WADA does its work in reviewing the whole process. When a B sample doesn’t match an A, there has to be a review of the individual case. And there needs to be an answer given which is satisfactory to the athlete who has gone through a process which has damaged his or her reputation.”

The case involving US athlete Jarrion Lawson a few years ago raised similar concerns. His positive test for the anabolic steroid epitrenbolone resulted initially in a four-year suspension before Lawson took his case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which cleared him – Lawson was able to satisfy the panel that the trace amount in his system occurred due to him consuming beef from cattle that had been treated with the hormone.

One of the most worrying aspects of the case – and it’s something that should concern both clean athletes and the sport’s authorities – was how Lawson had the deck so heavily stacked against him, with Professor Christiane Ayotte, director of the WADA-accredited lab in Quebec, testifying that positive tests for trenbolone in her lab in recent years had always featured low concentrations of the substance, which meant it wasn’t possible to separate intentional dopers from those who’d accidentally ingested contaminated meat. But that testimony wasn’t accurate, which came to light when Lawson’s team got access to the lab records.

Did that case, and the testimony of Ayotte, concern Howman?

“I’ve been around a long time and talked to a lot of scientists; I’ve yet to find a group of scientists who agree with each other,” he said. “Those differences come out in court. Am I concerned?  I’m always concerned. All those cases are reviewed in terms of the individuals who gave evidence. We have to respect the process, and sometimes the process will decide something you feel cross about, but you don’t lose sleep on it.”

What helps the public build confidence in anti-doping procedures is the publication of reports, and the AIU has led the way on that front, with detailed case summaries released on its website at the conclusion of each case. “In athletics, we have transparent processes; we don’t have secret hearings,” said Clothier, the inference being that is common practice elsewhere. “That’s a very important principle for public confidence in our sport.”

One of the cases many are waiting to read about is that of Tobi Amusan, the Nigerian star who was charged over the summer with three whereabouts violations, only to be cleared by a disciplinary tribunal on the eve of the World Championships.

The report on her case was due to be published last month, but its delay is likely related to the AIU weighing up whether to appeal the decision to clear her, with Howman saying the AIU was “concerned at the impact” it will have.

He added: “We will ask WADA what they’re going to do about it. They have a right of appeal as well, so if it’s a matter of great principle in the anti-doping world, then we’d expect them to take the lead. Our decision will be taken once we’ve received all that information. That all has to happen in a 30-day period.”

When it comes to Kenya, one of the hotspots of the anti-doping battleground in recent years, Clothier said the trends have changed.

“The doping situation in Kenya is not centralized, but it is increasingly sophisticated and organized by various networks, and it’s all in pursuit of financial rewards that come from road running,” he said. “We’ve had changes in tactics, and one, very clearly, is (the use of) triamcinolone and other therapeutic medications being abused. It’s being done in cooperation with doctors and other networks of people.”

The Kenyan government recently pledged $25 million over five years to combat doping, which will triple the country’s current anti-doping budget.

“The big chunk needs to go on more testing,” said Clothier. “Kenya has thousands of professional athletes, and we test the top part of the pyramid, but the bottom half is not tested out of competition at all, and hundreds and hundreds of pro runners can win money without being tested. They need investigations, intelligence support, and education.”

The result will likely be that the tide turns in the years ahead, with Kenya slowly repairing its reputation when it comes to the credibility of its champions. The same will likely be true of the sport itself.

While each doping scandal creates headlines, causing it to seep into public consciousness for reasons its authorities would rather avoid, such short-term pain will, eventually, produce long-term gain, allowing fans to have more faith in what they’re seeing.

“There will always be people who try to break the rules; we’re not stupid, and many of those are advised by an entourage,” said Howman. “There will be a percentage no matter what, but we try to reduce that as much as possible.”

That’s all you can ask.

In the past, athletics fell into credibility issues by burying its head in the sand, and such wilful ignorance or outright apathy allowed the cancer of doping to spread, by and large, without restriction. The incisions to remove it, piece by piece, crooked operator by crooked operator, are undoubtedly uncomfortable, but they’re also utterly essential.

Because, in the end, they serve the interests of those most deserving of praise, reward and public adulation: the athletes doing it the right way.