A hopeless battle worth fighting

PARIS -- The anti-doping movement has taken on big targets over the past 10 years, but none bigger than cyclist Lance Armstrong, who was recently stripped of his seven Tour de France titles.

At the World Anti-Doping Agency's conference with pharmaceutical company representatives last week, Armstrong's name was woven into numerous speeches as a tale of both caution and success for anti-doping.

The case brought against him by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency surprised even WADA officials with its depth, and even ardent anti-doping veterans said l 'affair Armstrong exposed the limits of testing in the face of a well-financed, coordinated effort to cheat.

The Armstrong case was seen as a possible threat to anti-doping itself: a wealthy, determined athlete who had legions of supporters, from the anonymous donors who backed his cancer charity to members of the U.S. Congress. There was also a tense moment in the process after USADA filed charges against Armstrong, when the International Cycling Union (UCI) said it might not carry out USADA's decision to strip the cyclist of his titles. If UCI had appealed USADA's decision, it would have put a sports federation at odds with the anti-doping charter it had signed.

And then the fight ended. Armstrong decided not to challenge USADA, essentially accepting his fate. The agency then released more than a thousand pages of documents supporting its case, and the UCI, which has been accused of complicity in Armstrong's drug use, said it would not contest the agency's findings. UCI, now struggling to prove its credibility, is forming an independent commission to investigate its own role.

"Outside the Lines" sat down with WADA director general David Howman during the group's conference, asking him about the current state of the anti-doping movement, where the fight goes from here, and the impact of the Armstrong case.

Q: What has the Armstrong case done for the credibility of WADA and national agencies like USADA?

A: We're much more credible. We've been talking about Lance Armstrong for years, and now there's the evidence for people to see. We knew we were [credible]. In terms of what people in the wider society might think, there are some people out there who were saying [about USADA], "They were hunting witches." But they sure found one.

Q: When UCI decided not to appeal the charges against Armstrong, what was the significance to WADA's overall efforts to carry out its mission?

A: I think everybody anticipated Armstrong was going to fight the thing to the nth degree and he didn't, and I think when he made that decision it was going to be very difficult for UCI to step into his shoes because they would then be displaying an approach that probably would have been unfortunate. So I think as soon as Armstrong threw the towel in, we were of the view that UCI would probably not take it further. That's contrary to a lot of the press that [UCI] had given before about challenging USADA and so on, but we just didn't think it had substance anyway, so it didn't bother us.

Q: Before Armstrong made his decision, you looked at a landscape where the biggest threat to anti-doping was lawsuits. What has his case done to that threat?

A: We've had that in mind since the [WADA] code was put into place in 2004. There were a lot of people out there saying, "You're going to come unstuck because someone's going to challenge you in the court of human rights; you're going to come unstuck because some professional player is going to spend millions and millions." Well, we haven't come unstuck, you know? We're still bouncing around eight years later. There will always be those who will threaten to do things, and it will always be in the back of your mind you've got to be cautious to ensure you don't breach basic principles. But if you are [sued], what's wrong with a challenge every now and then? Bring it on.

Q: You had a number of critics, including journalists, especially in the U.S., who questioned WADA and USADA's authority and legitimacy. You've had members of U.S. Congress saying, wait, "Who is this group?" What has the Armstrong case done for WADA and USADA's legitimacy?

A: I think some people opened up their mouths probably before their brain got into gear. I think you can say things without examining facts. When the facts surface, those who said things ought to be retracting them or say they're sorry or they got it wrong. You don't hear too much of that, yet.

I think a better example in the States is the change in attitude in baseball following the Mitchell report. And I would like to think you're going to get the same change of attitude here as a result of the USADA report. That would show significant advances.

Q: What criticism do you think was off-base?

A: I wouldn't want to identify or isolate anything. When you get emotion involved, then you're going to get misguided opinions, and there's nothing you can do better than point that out and hope that clarity will be given by what USADA has done, and people will lose that emotion and look at it logically.

Q: When an athlete is suspected of doping, how do you balance his or her rights?

A: The issue at the end of the day in relation to athlete rights is you're not dealing with athletes who are normal good-value athletes, except in those few cases which are inadvertent. The inadvertent cases, I think, have been dealt with satisfactorily; we don't have a lot of complaints about them right now. The real cheater is a real cheater, and you have to be pretty strong with the way that you deal with a real cheater. This Lance Armstrong thing revealed the lengths to which people go. It's horrendous when you think about it.

Q: There were questions raised in the USADA report about whether UCI covered up positive tests for Armstrong and might have received money quid pro quo for doing so. What do you want to see from the investigation they say they plan to start on their role? [UCI asked for and received several names from John Coates, chairman of the Court of Arbitration for Sport, to form an independent review board.]

A: I think they're doing the right thing by getting an independent inquiry into place, but I wouldn't want to comment until we see who's conducting it and their terms of reference. Because you can have an inquiry that's very narrow in its ability to operate. That would not be a good idea. It would be much better for it to be as wide as possible and to give the sport a chance to heal and get rid of -- we say "the evil," that besotted them so long.

I think there are suggestions within the USADA report that require deep analysis, and that analysis needs to take place before anyone comments.

Q: You recently criticized the NBA's drug testing program as having weaknesses. What do you think is the general status of anti-doping among the professional American sports leagues?

A: Here's the deal: The leagues have their testing programs in the hands of the players' associations, so effectively in the major leagues, the players have control of the program that they're submitting themselves to. I would think that if you have a lot of clean players in your league they would be willing to have a through testing program. Now, there have been quantum leaps in baseball, which indicates the players in their collective deal has seen the utility of doing that. But it took controversy to do that. And sometimes that's what stimulates action.

Sometimes it takes a crisis to make change. We don't have a crisis in basketball. The NFL, of course, are entrenched in an argument with their players' association. It's been stuck on testing for human growth hormone, for heaven's sake. You look at tennis, the ATP have warmed to our idea, golf have moved quite a long way, and hockey is in the middle of a dispute at the moment where I don't think the anti-doing program is part of the program.

Q: Without a crisis people, don't seem to care. What can the anti-doping movement do to convince a league that it does have a doping issue if there isn't a doping crisis raging around them?

A: What we can do is alert people that a crisis is coming. If you don't do any of that, just look at Armstrong: That was a crisis in the making for 10 years. My former president [Dick Pound]) was pretty strong in his prediction. So strong that he was sued [by UCI]. At the end of the day, he was right.

I think you don't want to play the game of "cry wolf" because that's stupid. But what you can do is say, look, these things are going to happen unless you address them, and aren't you better to be out in front of them before they come along. I think we've got a much better dialogue with the major leagues than we had five, six years ago. We don't have any mandate to deal with the major leagues, so they're coming willingly to discuss these things. I hope that would progress.

Q: Unlike Olympic sports, professional U.S. leagues administer their own anti-doping programs, which inevitably raises questions about transparency. What would it do for anti-doping in American sports to turn their programs over to a third party?

A: That would be part and parcel of a useful sort of approach. And baseball have gone a long way toward that. And I think you could probably look at their model and the other leagues could look at them and say, how could that develop? I wouldn't say it's perfect; they realize it's not. But they're at least heading in the right direction without being criticized in the media on a daily basis.

Q: This conference has dealt with efforts to get major pharmaceutical companies to help with anti-doping, getting them to agree to share research on drugs with the potential for abuse before they come to market. You've had some success with a few companies. What got Big Pharma to agree to help at all?

A: I think there was a bit of a sea change in their attitude. They always thought that if they got involved in an anti-doping controversy, they would come off worse in the media. And I think what's occurred over the last couple of years has showed the contrary, that they've been seen as doing some community work; therefore, it's a good thing to be working with us.

Q: Whether they help or not, you still have a number of threats out there: rich, motivated sports owners, many from oil money in Russia and the Middle East, buying sports teams; nations that are believed to have state-supported doping programs; athletes who can afford to get drugs through black-market sources. How do you take that on?

A: There's more money in sport now than there was five years ago. Money fuels greed, and greed brings shortcuts. There are risks of corruption and gambling, and they're real. That's the big thing: 25 percent of sport is susceptible to corruption.

Q: Where does that figure come from?

A: That's what Interpol tells me, that because of conditions, 25 percent are vulnerable. People are going to find ways, so you have to remain vigilant.

Q: What confidence do you have that you won't see another "clear," the designer steroid at the heart of the BALCO scandal that was created to evade detection?

A: I don't think we've got confidence we won't see another clear. Athletes cheat. But are we more alert to the possibility? Absolutely.

Q: What would it take to actually win the war on doping?

A: We can't win the war. We can't. That's just not possible. But we can win battles along the way.