February 2, 2015 - I am often asked why sport, and in particular clean sport, matters. In 2015, with sport as commercial, as lucrative, and as big an industry as it is, why – some ask – should we work so hard to preserve the spirit of sport? A spirit that the more cynical members of our society might argue has all but evaporated.
I, and I believe the vast majority of people that work in, and have come to love, sport – would disagree with this viewpoint. Sport is a microcosm of society, and playing or competing in sport makes people better characters, and fosters the right values. It is this philosophical, purist viewpoint that constantly provides the backdrop to my work in leading the anti-doping community. Nevertheless, what has become increasingly apparent to me through my involvement with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) over the years, and indeed my Presidency during the past 12 months, is that doping is no longer an issue that just affects sport – it is now as important an issue to society as it is to sport. Of that there is no doubt.
Last week, WADA, along with co-hosts that included UNESCO, the Japanese Ministry of Education, Sports, Science & Technology, and the Japan Anti-Doping Agency (JADA), staged the Second International Conference on the Pharmaceutical Industry and the Fight against Doping. The very fact that this conference was even necessary demonstrates the fact that doping is no longer an issue ‘owned’ by sport. It has become a much wider societal issue that carries significant dangers to public health, and therefore requires a global response. This line of thought now resonates with anti-doping organizations, pharmaceutical companies and governments. The world is now listening.
Leading global organizations including UNESCO, the World Health Organization (WHO) and Interpol all participated at the Conference because they, along with WADA, are only too aware that doping is one of the most pressing issues of our time. Together, we know that if we do not combat doping - and its repercussions on wider public health - collectively, then the problem will continue to escalate. The top biopharmaceutical companies – Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, Amgen, Roche – all congregated for the Conference because they, like WADA, know that the issue is of mutual interest to both our communities.
For the anti-doping community, doping threatens the very integrity of what remains so important: clean, fair sport competed on a level playing field; that is, sport that allows talent and dedication to prosper, not sport that involves the use of prohibited substances or methods. By working closely with the pharmaceutical industry, we in anti-doping are able to identify trends of the legitimate medicinal substances that are being abused or misused by athletes looking to enhance their performance, and importantly we can then alert pharmaceutical companies to this abuse. In turn, pharmaceutical companies can inform anti-doping organizations such as WADA of medicinal substances in their pipeline which might have the characteristics of a substance that could be of interest to dopers. This is hugely beneficial to anti-doping, as it allows our scientific experts to develop possible detection methods for these substances at an early stage, and therefore helps us stay one step ahead of those looking to cheat. The benefits of such collaborations are there for all to see.
Where WADA can offer so much to combatting doping is through its own model: we are comprised 50% from government and public authorities and 50% from sport. This composition has proven hugely beneficial to WADA over the years, and provides us with the platform to get to the root of the doping issue. At the Conference in Tokyo, public authorities and governments joined private institutions from the pharmaceutical industry to communicate on strategies to minimize doping in sport and society as a whole. This gathering was a prime example of WADA being able to unite both public and private sectors for the greater good. Sport needs government to be able to push anti-doping to the top of the agenda. We now hear more and more about other sporting “illnesses” such as illegal betting and match fixing – and there is no doubt these are serious issues affecting the integrity of sport – but what could be more important to sport than trying to eradicate doping, with the support of governments? Doping is an issue that puts seeds of doubt in the minds of the public, and unless we succeed in countering the issue, the public will wonder if what they witness on their television screens or in their sporting stadia is real.
Sport continues to play a strong role in protecting the rights of the clean athlete, but where government can contribute greatly is in the public health domain. Sport is now a hugely lucrative industry, and there is a real area of concern with drugs being counterfeited, illegally produced, trafficked and distributed – and ultimately these drugs get in the hands of elite athletes and, increasingly, members of the public. If governments can introduce relevant laws, and applicable penalties to combat this abuse of substances, then police will act and the scourge of doping can be prevented. The WADA Director General David Howman brought this issue to the fore at the Conference: these substances are no longer just of use to elite athletes, but to high school students who want to increase their strength or the older generations who long for the ‘fountain of youth’. These types of substances are not approved and they have not gone through the required health checks – put simply, we do not always know from where these dubious substances originate. The internet means that these substances are increasingly easy to access, and that in itself is a concern. However, the danger that these substances pose to public health has, in the partnerships the anti-doping community and pharmaceutical industry are now forming, a real answer in place.
The Vice President of Pfizer, David Verbraska, provided a sporting analogy. He said “As with every good sport’s team, we all have a different role to play. We all need to play to our strengths and contribute if we are to succeed.” And that is true of pharmaceutical companies, it is true of WADA and it is true of governments.
So, what practical steps can we now take to follow on from the hugely productive discussions that took place last week?
Firstly, partnerships and memoranda of understanding will be an impactful way forward. Striking up partnerships with clear objectives offers a concrete solution to the issue. WADA is no stranger to this, with formal partnerships already in place with the likes of Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, Roche and Amgen, as well as federations such as the IFPMA, but we will continue to seek new ways to cover the gaps that might still exist between our two communities. Secondly, both communities must press ahead with sharing information across borders. Evidence is rife that athletes will go to unthinkable lengths to find shortcuts to success, and it’s now up to proponents of clean sport – be they anti-doping organizations, governments, public health organizations or even law enforcement agencies – to share information that stops prohibited substances from getting in the wrong hands. This is something the new anti-doping rules – the 2015 World Anti-Doping Code – highlights the need for.
The events of last week gave us good reason to look to the future with optimism because, despite these pressing challenges, there is a collective will from both the anti-doping and pharmaceutical communities that we must protect not just sport from itself, but the public from the serious dangers to health that these substances pose.
This resolve will motivate WADA in the months and years ahead.