Outkicked: Don’t Leave Out The Anti-Doping Details

Stricter out-of-competition testing protocols will take place in East Africa, home to several World Marathon Majors winners. Photo: PhotoRun.net

It’s much easier to talk about anti-doping than to actually do it, and so far, it’s not clear what the plan is.

On Friday, the World Marathon Majors announced that they plan to write anti-doping clauses into the contracts they negotiate with elite runners. Those clauses, a press release from the group reads, will allow the races to “suspend payment and to demand repayment” from runners later found to have doped. The WMM also indicated that they will support “increasing the number and frequency of out-of-competition drug tests in Ethiopia and Kenya.”

It was a lot of good news in a short release, and maybe the most significant on the anti-doping front since the introduction of the biological passport to track and field last summer. Exactly how committed major races were to ensuring a clean sport has been an open question, and this begins to answer it. If the WMM is able to follow through, cheating in the major marathons, the most lucrative arena in the sport, will soon be both less profitable and more risky, and that’s a powerful combination.

Still, I’ve got concerns. If the announcement means that major races haven’t already been including anti-doping clauses in their contracts, it’s a bit shocking. In every contract I’ve ever signed as a writer, I’ve had to agree not to plagiarize, and I assumed races also included some guarantee of fair play. Other than specifying appearance fees and prize money, what are those contracts for?

When I asked Tom Grilk, president of the Boston Athletic Association, why the majors hadn’t adopted measures like these years ago, he said that, although he wasn’t actually aware of any races including anti-doping clauses in the past, the contracts are private and I shouldn’t infer anything from his lack of awareness. Obviously, that’s a frustrating response, since it doesn’t mean anything: if races haven’t historically included clauses like these, I’d like to know why, and if they have, I’d like to know whether the announcement amounts to much more than a PR move. (Update: according to David Bedford of the London Marathon, “no provision had previously been established for athletes to repay funds paid if they subsequently admitted to, or were found guilty of doping violations.”)

But let’s assume some races have and some races haven’t: has any race director ever actually recouped prize money from a doper, anti-doping clause or otherwise? If yes, I’m unaware of it, which I suspect reflects the cost of litigation. If you’re going to spend more money fighting a doper in court than the prize money you paid him, you probably won’t bother with a suit. Worse, as Letsrun notes, it may be quite easy for individual runners to disappear and keep their money if the race organizer and the athlete are of different nationalities. (On the other hand, it’ll be much harder for agents, who are typically entitled to between 10 and 15 percent of their athletes’ prize package, to avoid a lawsuit, and that could be a big deterrent.) Presumably, these new anti-doping clauses will raise the likelihood of recovery and lower the costs of litigation, but it’d be nice to actually see a convicted doper lose some money before getting too excited about what all this means.

Another key element of the release, which was given only a fraction of a sentence and no explanation, was a reference to supporting out-of-competition testing in East Africa. Since I last wrote about doping, three—or maybe four or maybe five—Kenyans have been caught cheating, and it’s clear that the sport desperately needs more testing in East Africa. Until recently, I thought the IAAF and WADA had been conducting random, out-of-competition tests in Kenya and Ethiopia, as they have in Russia and Morocco, to compensate for those countries’ lack of national anti-doping organizations. But until late last year, that appears only to have happened with urine tests in East Africa. (Russia and Morocco, of course, are much closer to IAAF headquarters in Monaco.) It’s expensive to collect and transport blood samples from East Africa to an accredited testing facility, most of which are in Europe, and blood needs to be carefully stored. The upshot is that many East African athletes have been practically exempt from the most essential blood tests, and that means the effort to fund more testing in the region is major news, even more so if the money is coming from a group with deep pockets like the World Marathon Majors.

But it’s much easier to talk about anti-doping than to actually do it, and so far, it’s not clear what the plan is. In an email, New York Road Runner’s CEO Mary Wittenberg told me only that the majors are “engaged in discussions with IAAF officials to deliver the extended testing to the marathon hotbeds of Ethiopia and Kenya,” which is nice to know, but a bit meaningless until the group reveals how much it can afford to spend.

Here’s why: when American runners are tested, they’re typically approached by people who work directly or as contractors for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, or sometimes by people who work for the IAAF, or more rarely by people who work for the World Anti-Doping Agency, an organization that exists to set up and standardize anti-doping rules, but not collect blood and urine samples. And figuring out who actually pays for any of those tests, which run between $200 and $1,000 per runner, is another puzzle: sometimes USADA does, out of its own budget, sometimes USATF does, out of its own budget, sometimes IAAF does, and sometimes races do.

In other words, if you’re determined to test runners in East Africa, you have several options. You could fund the creation of agencies that are modeled on USADA or UK Anti-Doping, and solve some of the logistical problems of getting testers in-country. But neither Kenya nor Ethiopia have a great reputation for producing transparent institutions, and most likely you’d run into serious credibility problems like those that affect Athletics Kenya.

Or, you could also just hire a bunch of contract drug testers and put them on a plane, but there are credibility problems there, too—can the WMM really be trusted to test the sport’s biggest stars?

Or you could ask the IAAF to administer the testing program—deciding which runners to test, for which substances, and how often—which seems to be the best solution, perhaps even with a group of testers located permanently in a city like Eldoret. But you’d better have a lot of money, because the folks from Monaco don’t work for cheap, and the nearest WADA testing facility in South Africa is still 3,000 miles away. And even though the IAAF has been reliable in recent years, we all know that when the UCI took on a similar policing role in cycling, it failed with the most spectacular consequences.

On Monday, Grilk told me that the majors would “keep [testing] independent and get it right, whatever the mechanics may be.” I hope that’s true, but I really hope that somebody at the organization is clear that the “mechanics” in both efforts—enforcing contracts and testing runners—aren’t treated as minor details to be sorted out later.

About The Author:

Peter Vigneron is a senior contributing editor at Competitor magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @PeterVigneron.

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