Have Dopers Escaped Detection During Covid-19 Lockdowns?

By Ciaran O’Mahony

Rob Heffernan is an Olympic Bronze medallist, but he has never stood on the coveted Olympic podium.

At London 2012, years of grinding through Ireland’s damp, scenic landscape drove Heffernan to a 4th place finish in the 50 km race walk.

He had fallen agonisingly short of Olympic glory. But rumours swirled that the man who took Gold – Sergey Kirdyapkin – was part of a state sponsored doping program.

Four years after returning to Ireland empty-handed, Heffernan was awarded Olympic Bronze in a special ceremony at City Hall, Cork. Kirdyapkin had been stripped of his title after failing multiple drug tests.

Rob Hefferan finally receives his Olympic Bronze medal in November 2016. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images

“To take a medal for Ireland in front of Buckingham palace was such an incredible feeling. It was great to take something back for the injustice that we have suffered over time by wrong doing. A small victory, [but] nonetheless a victory,” Heffernan says.

While his heroic performance in London was eventually rewarded, Heffernan is in little doubt that he’s been cheated out of other major honours.

“I have suffered more throughout my career to dopers,” Heffernan says.

“There are [other] medals and better positions that I should have now but there is nothing I can do about it.”

He tries not to dwell on these injustices as they will inevitably lead to anger and misery.

“You would be angry and frustrated as your life can be drastically different when your results are better on paper. I try not to waste too much energy thinking about these negative scenarios,” he says.

But with the Tokyo Olympics looming, sports fans could be forgiven for wondering if Covid-19 lockdowns have allowed ‘drug cheats’ to thrive.

Sport has rightly been scaled back as we’ve battled a virus that has taken over 2.1 million lives to date. But pandemic restrictions have also forced National Anti-doping Organisations (NADOs) to limit or completely suspend doping tests for extended periods.

The Jaded Newsman obtained WADA’s latest international testing figures – and they are alarming.

WADA Anti-doping Tests – 2019 vs 2020

 20192020
Jan17,53920,286
Feb23,81925,257
Mar26,93311,206
Apr25,219577
May27,1462,625
Jun26,9047,706
Jul28,08411,080
Aug29,36014,612
Sept26,63818,697
Oct26,89721,081
Nov26,46919,554
Dec20,87315,078
Annual Total305,881167,759

In 2019, 305,881 blood and urine samples were collected by NADOs around the world. But in a pandemic hit 2020, they collected just 167,759.

From March to August 2020, monthly testing figures were over 50% lower than the previous year. In April and May, in particular, there were 97.8% and 91.4% dips. 

Although testing increased in subsequent months, it was consistently lower, and more lockdowns in late 2020 and early 2021 have further weakened doping operations.  

Numerous NADOs told us their testing had been significantly effected:

  • Doping Authority Netherlands’ testing has dropped by 40% during the pandemic and with all sports except football currently suspended there, the situation is unlikely to improve any time soon.
  • National Anti-doping Agency (NADA) Germany have maintained strong out-of-competition testing, but in-competition testing has taken a major hit. There was a complete suspension of all testing from mid-March to mid-May 2020.   
  • The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES) didn’t test their athletes from March 27 to July 13 (resumption of urine collection) and October 26 (resumption of blood collection). Three quarters into their fiscal year, testing numbers are one-third lower.
  • The Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority’s* (ASADA) annual report for the 2019/20 financial year showed a 20% fall in testing on the previous year – from 5,523 samples to 4,414. However, state lockdowns extended well past this timeline.
  • The United States Anti-doping Authority (USADA) is yet to release lockdown testing figures, but they reduced their operations to “mission critical testing” during the Spring of 2020, while United Kingdom Anti-doping’s (UKAD) April-June figures show an almost 95% drop from 2019 (2,212 to 126 tests).  

*ASADA was replaced by Sport Integrity Australia at the end of the financial year

How will this affect clean sport?

President of Doping Authority Netherlands, Herman Ram, says “the impact of Covid-19 on our testing program has been, and still is, huge.”  

Ram cautions that it would be unfair to assume that athletes are taking advantage of reduced testing, but he concedes that he “would prefer to have more proof to support this.”

USADA CEO, Travis Tygart, knows that many athletes were doping before the pandemic and he has no doubt that some will view this period as a window of opportunity.

“The temptation to dope rises when there is a less likely chance of being caught due to known, reduced testing,” says Tygart.

Travis Tygart, President of USADA. Photo: John Thys/AFP via Getty Images

Studies have shown that minor doses of PEDs taken during “off-peak” periods can be undetectable in urine or blood samples a year later. But they can provide performance-enhancing benefits for up to 4 years.

For example, the most common PED detected by NADOs is anabolic steroids. A study by Scientists at the University of Oslo suggests that these substances can provide muscle boosts that potentially last for decades. Athletes would therefore reap the benefits long after the steroids were detectable in their system.

Drug Free Sport New Zealand CEO, Nick Paterson, is concerned that the problem may have intensified, but stresses that the vast majority of athletes will not be swayed one way or the other by recent events.

“The lower amount of testing in 2020 certainly means that both detection and deterrence has dropped off,” Paterson says.

“However, just because a storekeeper turns her back or takes a call when you’re in a shop, does not mean you immediately start stealing their goods, does it? Most people have better ethics than that,” he says.

Some research suggests that many don’t. Olivier de Hon, Harm Kuipers and Maarten van Bottenburg conducted a comprehensive review of academic studies on the prevalence of doping up to 2015. Their review found that between 14-39% of anonymously surveyed athletes were doping – much higher than the 1-2% who failed drug tests during this period.

Another study conducted randomised response surveys of 1,203 athletes at the IAAF World Athletics Championships (South Korea) and 965 athletes at the Pan Arab Games (Qatar).  They revealed that over 30-43% of the WAC athletes had admitted to doping within the last 12 months, with over 45-57% of the PAG athletes doing the same. The findings were so controversial that their publication was blocked for 6 years.  

Photo: Patrik Stollarz/Bongarts/Getty Images

While it’s clear that many athletes were already doping. The question is, has that number increased? And could the impacts on testing help them get away with it?

Paterson highlights certain barriers to entry regardless of athletes’ intent.

“If you have been a clean athlete and prior to 2020 were not doping, where would you suddenly get supplies from and how?”

“Purchasing prohibited substances is not as easy as placing an on-line grocery order,” says Paterson. “Many of the athletes doping during this period are therefore likely to have already been cheating or well on the path to do[ing] so.”

Sport Integrity Australia (SIA) CEO, David Sharpe, holds a similar view – “Athletes willing to cheat or win at any cost will always look for ways to cheat, whether that be through advancement in science, unethical practices or during periods where testing may be limited.”

NADA Germany says the uncertainty around the return of competitions could result in immediate and unexpected spikes in testing, making it extremely difficult for athletes to schedule comprehensive doping programs in lockdown.

“PEDs are only relevant if you train for a goal. As many competitions are cancelled and athletes do not know when testing is back. Out-of-competition schemes are in place and will start without any further notice. The unpredictability of the system is a decisive advantage for testing authorities,” they say.

WADA spokesman James Fitzgerald says major physical gains are also unattainable due to the closure of training facilities.

“Most performance-enhancing drugs work in conjunction with high-quality, strenuous training and, with COVID-related restrictions and lockdowns in place, many athletes do not have access to their normal training facilities. This mitigates the risk of athletes deciding to cheat.”

Nonetheless, NADOs hope to resume blood and urine testing at previous levels ASAP.

In most cases, that won’t be possible for some time, but New Zealand is a rare exception. From mid-March to June 10 – and briefly in August 2020 – they had a strict lockdown and testing was suspended for 11 weeks. Nevertheless, they collected 1,061 samples by the end of the financial year, against a target of 1,350 samples.

But countries like The Netherlands are up against it, according to Mr Ram. “We will be in lockdown for at least another four weeks,” he says.

“Once the lockdown is ended, it will still take some time to restart them [and] our government is discussing a curfew.”

NADOs have emphasised that drug tests are not the only tool available to catch dopers. They have invested significantly in anti-doping education programs, and intelligence/whistleblower investigation teams – to catch drug cheats who are beating the tests.

“Any effective anti-doping program cannot be reliant solely on testing,” says SIA’s David Sharpe.

He explains that Intelligence helps NADOs decide:

  • Which athletes to test and when to test them
  • Which sports are most at risk of doping
  • What emerging substances pose a threat to athlete health and sport integrity.
David Sharpe, CEO of Sport Integrity Australia. Source: Sport Integrity Australia, Facebook page.

Athlete Biological Passports (ABPs) are another crucial weapon. They are developed through a sequence of tests that provide longitudinal biological profiles of each athlete. ABPs provide a specific reference range for key biological variables in athletes’ blood and urine and can therefore detect unusual results even when PEDs are no longer in an athlete’s system.

The storage and re-analysis of long-term blood and urine samples will also help to uncover irregularities in the future, according to the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC).

“All athletes would be very familiar with the IOC’s re-testing program which has proved successful in back-capturing drug cheats by using new technologies to detect past infringements,” says the AOC.

“The AOC doesn’t believe drug cheats can take any comfort from the impact of the pandemic on anti-doping programs.”

As a beneficiary of re-testing, Rob Heffernan has a clear message for athletes who might be tempted to dope during this tumultuous period.

“Athletes need to know if they cheat, they will be caught. And if you do cheat, I feel if its conclusive, you should be banned for life – no second chances.”

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