Athlete Confidence in Anti-Doping Plummets During Pandemic

By Ciaran O’Mahony

Sports Federations insist Covid-19 lockdowns won’t stop them catching dopers. But athletes are less optimistic, according to recent surveys.

The results of Global Athlete’s “Return to Play Survey” show that many international athletes are concerned their counterparts “will use this time to dope.”

The organisation’s Director-General, Rob Koehler, says the survey asked athletes about the effects of Covid-19 on their lives. Doping was top of their list of concerns.

“We heard from 375 Athletes from 23 countries representing all continents, and from 49 summer [Olympic] and 18 winter [Olympic] sports,” says Koehler.

“The majority of athletes were concerned with the lack of doping controls during the pandemic, while also indicating that they felt some athletes will take advantage of the lack of doping control,” he says.

“We recognize the sample base may not reflect the voice of the entire athlete community but it does give us some insight,” according to Koehler.

Of the 375 athletes surveyed, 63% identified as female, 36% as male and 1% as other. They have also competed at the highest levels of professional sport such as – 28% Olympic/Paralympics, 46% World Championships, 11% World Cups and 15% national competitions.

Here’s how they felt about doping control during the pandemic:

How concerned are you with the lack of doping controls during the pandemic?

  • 19% Extremely concerned
  • 25% Very concerned
  • 21% Moderately concerned
  • 14% Slightly concerned
  • 19% No concerned at all

With the lack of doping control, how likely do you believe it is that some athletes in your sport discipline will be to use this time to dope?

  • 25% Extremely likely
  • 30% Somewhat likely
  • 16% Neither likely nor unlikely
  • 17% Somewhat unlikely
  • 12% Extremely unlikely

These results follow the University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s study, which anonymously surveyed 1400 American athletes in 2020. Over 50% of these athletes believed their international competitors would take advantage of significant dips in doping tests during the Covid-19 pandemic. As many as 30% believed their compatriots would do the same.

Photo: Julien Hekimian/Sygma via Getty Images

Despite these statistics, International Testing Agency (ITA) spokeswoman Marta Nawrocka insists their anti-doping program “is not a frail system that has come to a halt because of the effects of the pandemic.”

The ITA is leading anti-doping for the Tokyo Olympics, and is administering tests on a “country by country” basis to strike a balance between “public health first and anti-doping efforts second,” according to Nawrocka.

“Our absolute priority continues to be the protection of the health of all athletes and doping control personnel,” Nawrocka says.

“There were very few competitions taking place since past spring and so In-Competition testing numbers significantly dropped, we continued to implement our Out-Of-Competition testing program throughout the past year and continue to do so now,” she says.

“Periods without competitions or access to athletes for testing purposes will be taken into account once sports events start taking place again.”

Many international sports events have been cancelled or postponed since March 2020, causing a significant decrease of “in-competition” testing. Numerous out-of-competition testing missions were also suspended due to Government restrictions. This is evident in WADA statistics obtained by The Jaded Newsman, which show a nearly 50% decrease in drug testing last year.

Total Drug tests completed around the world. Source: WADA

But there was a testing resurgence in late-2020 and Ms Nawrocka says the ITA is pleased with their achievements given the challenges they faced.

“Overall, the drop in the out-of-competition testing numbers that we implemented for our partners in 2020 was less than 10%, which is a solid result considering the circumstances,” she says.

All mid-pandemic testing has been conducted using stringent sanitary protocols for athletes’ safety, according to Nawrocka.

“The current situation is definitely challenging and requires flexible approaches, but it does not mean that anti-doping actors are left empty handed. We still have a solid array of approaches to catch cheats,” she says.

These alternatives include risk assessment, intelligence, investigations, Athlete Biological Passport administration, Therapeutic Use Exemption management, results management and anti-doping education.

Olympic champion Callum Skinner isn’t surprised by athletes’ scepticism, but says we must give everyone the benefit of the doubt during this period, unless clear evidence emerges.

“Of course it’s a worry, testing rates have plummeted,” says Skinner.

The Scottish Cyclist, who won Gold and Silver Medals at the 2016 Olympics, has no doubt that doping occurs at the top level.

But he knows that many athletes compete clean and don’t deserve to perform under a cloud of suspicion as sports return.

“The system wasn’t water tight before and it isn’t now,” according to Skinner.

“I tend to stay away from accusing people with no evidence, we have plenty of confirmed cases to give our attention to that are mismanaged,” Skinner says.

“We’re in the unknown so I’d encourage people to measure their scepticism on a case by case basis,” he says.

Callum Skinner celebrates his Olympic achievements at the Team GB victory parade. Photo: Jan Kruger/Getty Images

Fellow Cycling medallist Alexander Kolobnev is less concerned about pandemic doping.

Kolobnev finished in 4th place at the Beijing Olympics, but was later awarded a Bronze medal after Davide Rebellin was stripped of his silver medal upon re-testing of blood and urine samples.

Dopers have always been out there, according to Kolobnev, but the pandemic will not exacerbate the problem.

He says testing will increase significantly in the final 100 days before the Olympics and “stupid cheaters” will not be able to maintain “top shape”.

Russian Cyclist and Olympic Bronze Medallist, Alexander Kolobnev. Photo: Pascal Pavani/Getty Images

“[Doping] has sense only if you [are] competing and not sitting in [a] sofa or do[ing] your virtual races,” Kolobnev says.

“Of course there will always be 1-4% of crazy or weak athletes who could use prohibited substance[s] or methods, but they always were,” he says.

“It’s part of the game. Find them and kick them out.”

As anti-doping bodies continue to adjust to Covid-19 restrictions, testing gaps and blind spots are increasing.

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