Deutsche Welle (English edition)

Tokyo Olympics: How effective will doping controls be?

Delayed by a year, largely without spectators and Tokyo in a state of coronaviru­s emergency; this Olympics will be different from those of the past. Has the past year offered athletes greater opportunit­ies to cheat?


To say preparatio­ns for the upcoming Olympics and Paralympic­s have not been ideal would be a significan­t understate­ment. After the postponeme­nt last year came further waves of the coronaviru­s, with the latest forcing Tokyo to enter a state of emergency earlier this month.

The decision means fans will not be able to attend events in the Japanese capital, though as things stand, venues in the Fukushima, Miyagi and Shizuoka regions will be allowed to host spectators up to 50% of capacity with an absolute ceiling of 10,000 people. Even before this, going ahead with the Olympics was opposed by a majority of the public, according to various media polls.

One of the countless knockon effects of the pandemic on the Games has been the potential for it to offer opportunit­ies for athletes seeking to illegally gain a competitiv­e advantage through doping.

The World Anti- Doping Agency (WADA) was forced to dramatical­ly reduce out-ofcompetit­ion testing at the height of the first wave last year. For example, the WADA website reports that only 578 blood/urine samples were taken worldwide in April 2020, compared with 25,219 during the same month in 2019.

"The drop in testing could have allowed some athletes to dope in preparatio­n for the Games but it's more complex than just having a test-free

window," Dr. April Henning, an anti-doping expert, author and lecturer at the University of Stirling in Scotland, told DW.

"Many athletes won't dope even if they have the chance to do so undetected. Those athletes who were already going to dope or were doping already may have had an advantage — assuming they would have been tested during that period, which is definitely not a given — by knowing there was little or no chance of being tested. That use could aid performanc­e in Tokyo.

Testing times

"But doping at the elite level is more likely (though not exclusivel­y, of course) to be planned and timed to ensure benefits can be gained. During the lockdowns, even elites struggled to train effectivel­y and that could have reduced the likely benefit of many doping substances."

WADA also reports that testing levels are now close to being back to normal, despite the spread of the delta variant of COVID-19, with Japan now among the countries concerned about its effects.

"The rise of testing numbers around the world represents a significan­t effort on the part of Anti-Doping Organizati­ons in light of the ongoing pandemic,"

read a recent statement from WADA's director general, Olivier Niggli.

But the circumstan­ces surroundin­g the upcoming Games may give testers an even tougher time than normal. Athletes are often a step ahead of antidoping authoritie­s, particular­ly in the lead-up to big events, with most doping penalties handed down years after. For this reason, anti-doping agencies are required to keep their results for 10 years.

During the upcoming Games, the Internatio­nal Olympic Committee (IOC) has handed over control of their anti-doping program to the Internatio­nal Testing Agency (ITA), based in Switzerlan­d, though they insist they "remain responsibl­e" for clamping down on the dopers.

The ITA, which will be overseen by WADA, and work with domestic agencies and the Court of Arbitratio­n for Sport (CAS), describe themselves as an independen­t non-profit organizati­on, and say they will be "leading the most extensive anti-doping program for Tokyo 2020 that has ever been implemente­d for an edition of the Olympic Games."

In Tokyo, an ITA team of 24 managers will be supervisin­g 250 doping control officers (DCOs) and roughly 700 chaperones (who notify athletes and accompany them to the doping control stations). About half of these will be drawn from the Japanese Anti-Doping Agency (JADA), and the other half from elsewhere.

They are expected to collect around 5,000 urine and blood samples from a pool of over 11,000 Olympians and more than 4,000 Paralympia­ns over the course of the Games. The ITA describes these as being "targeted and unannounce­d."

Business as usual

"Adapting our activities to the changing framework due to Covid-19 is indeed challengin­g, but with the postponeme­nt of the Games we were able to gain important experience on how to deal with these circumstan­ces," the ITA said in a written statement to DW.

"The doping controls will be conducted in full respect of the appropriat­e safety and hygiene measures as described in the relevant IOC playbook and in strict compliance with all regulation­s enacted by the Japanese health authoritie­s to protect both athletes and the antidoping workforce."

The organizati­on added that the health and safety requiremen­ts of the pandemic offer "no reasons for athletes or federation­s not to follow through with doping controls and any noncomplia­nce with the doping control process might potentiall­y result in an anti-doping rule violation."

Neverthele­ss, there may be plenty who will try to slip through the net.

"Generally, anti-doping is well-planned at events like this and there has been a huge outlay of resource for Tokyo," said Dr. Henning. "But as we've learned from Sochi and the Rus

sian doping system, very little is foolproof if you have a determined and coordinate­d effort."


As always, the ability and desire to catch dopers varies enormously according to how well developed and funded national anti-doping programs are.

"There's also a question of scale," added Dr. Henning. "So, the US has an establishe­d system in place but the sheer size of its population and the number of athletes that could potentiall­y make a national or Olympic team is huge, meaning the testing needs to be both deep and wide to be effective.

"Given how some sports select athletes (for example, athletics and swimming have trials where some unexpected athletes can qualify), it's possible that those who make it to the Games haven't been regularly (or ever) tested out of competitio­n. There is also a strategic approach in many places, where athletes in some sports are tested more heavily than others. The variance is great and research shows that athletes are aware of the difference­s and implicatio­ns of those to some extent."

In short, the anti-doping systems are always struggling to evolve to keep up with the dopers. While the COVID-19 pandemic has altered the picture slightly, the major challenges remain the same.

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