In light of Lance Armstrong’s doping-related downfall, talk of performance-enhancing drug use in tennis has reached an all-time high. And with various players speaking out on the subject in addition to widespread media coverage, it’s important to get the facts straight from an expert. Richard Ings, head of the ATP Anti-Doping Program from 2001 to 2005 and CEO of the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority from 2005 to 2010, weighs in on the doping discussion as it relates to the game of tennis.
Blair Henley: What are your thoughts on the potential benefits of doping for tennis players?
Richard Ings: Performance-enhancing drugs provide athletes in any sport with an advantage. Performance Enhancing Drugs (PED's) can be used to speed recovery, build strength, enhance stamina, overcome injuries more quickly, and build aggression. So any sport that requires fitness, speed, strength, longevity (in that the longer you compete, the more you earn), or fast recovery, there is a PED to give those athletes a big advantage over their peers not taking a PED. Tennis is clearly a sport where fitness, speed, stamina, strength, powers of recovery and longevity will be an advantage.
BH: Given the mountain of evidence the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) compiled against Lance Armstrong (despite the fact that he passed hundreds more tests than most tennis players will take in a career), do you worry that the current anti-doping program might be missing something?
RI: The evidence provided by USADA in the Lance Armstrong matter continues the trend of major doping incidents being uncovered through investigations, use of testimony and application of non testing related evidence. Testing will only catch a fraction of athletes involved in doping no matter how targeted or widespread such testing may be. History has taught us that serious dopers can easily outwit even the best and most comprehensive testing program. Any anti-doping program that relies solely on testing will only uncover a fraction of doping existing in that sport.
BH: Do you think the ITF has any hope of staying ahead of the doping technology?
RI: The future of the fight against doping in sport is agencies such as USADA working in cooperation with law enforcement agencies to obtain non-testing related evidence such as witness accounts, financial transactions, suspect doctor patient records and the like. This is the learning for all sports. I doubt that any sport could have mounted an investigation like USADA’s and been successful. USADA is purpose-built to focus 24/7 on fighting doping in sport. It is supported by a seven-figure budget and a full-time staff of legal, scientific, and investigative anti-doping professionals. No sport can hope to provide the investigative expertise on anti-doping that a USADA can muster.
BH: Currently, WADA code allows signatories to decide whether or not to announce provisional suspensions, which occur after an “A” sample is confirmed as positive. With the carousel of new accusations and suspensions in other sports, does it not seem like announcing the positive tests/provisional suspensions when they happen (instead of after the athlete is charged with a doping offense) would be in the best interests of the game?
RI: The ITF is one of a majority of sports that do not publicly announce provisional suspensions. This is a perfectly reasonable position to take given the current WADA Code.
My own view is that the WADA Code should be amended to make it mandatory for all sports to publicly announce provisional suspensions. This is a matter for WADA as, at the moment, the majority of sports do not support such a position.
BH: The ITF has reported 53 positive tests but only 21 Anti-Doping Rule Violations since 2007. Using that statistic alone, it seems understandable that some have doubts about what exactly goes on during tribunal hearings. How would you justify those numbers?
RI: This is not surprising as the number of positive tests need to be linked with the number of approved TUE's (Therapeutic Use Exemptions). A TUE, by nature, is an independently approved means for an athlete’s doctor to treat a bona fide condition with a banned substance where no alternative treatments are available. You will find that the difference between positive tests and rule violations is explained by approved TUE's and a positive with a TUE is not a doping matter but a known use of a banned substance for an approved purpose. Also note that TUE's are forwarded to WADA who has the right to overturn them after review (if they believe the TUE is not validly required).
A very small part of those numbers may be players who won their cases at CAS (Court of Arbitration for Sport), and were cleared. Note that every case goes to CAS, WADA is informed of every case, and WADA has an appeal of all decisions made by CAS. There are checks and balances, and it is impossible for a positive test to be swept under the carpet. The ITF, the player’s National Anti-Doping Agency (NADO), WADA, and the lab are all aware of the positive test at the same time.
BH: What are your thoughts on the fact that a player can miss two out-of-competition tests within an 18-month period? When some players are only getting tested out of competition once a year (or less), allowing three strikes could seem a little naïve.
RI: The three strikes in 18 months rule is a mandatory requirement for all sports by WADA. It is a compromise between being firm but fair. It does allow a player to duck and weave twice before a penalty may be imposed for missed tests, but for diligent testing organizations, it is a very simple matter to attempt a few tests over a few weeks to remove any window a player has to avoid testing.
[Writer's Note: In 2010, the ITF briefly published, then removed, a document on its website detailing the doping statistics for 2009. Of the 203 out-of-competition tests attempted that year, it showed that 49 players had no sample collected (i.e. a missed test) including Federer, Nadal, and the Williams sisters. According to the document, only one player, Amelie Mauresmo, was retested within days of a missed test.]
BH: Now that anti-doping agencies are freezing samples, should we really believe that the ITF is going to go back and test with the latest technology?
RI: Freezing samples is a new approach in the fight against doping. The Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (where I was CEO) was the first agency or sport to introduce the long term freezing of samples back in 2007. It is now commonplace across anti-doping and a facility offered by many labs.
Retesting samples is very easy, but it is also targeted. If you have frozen samples and a new drug is discovered, you don't go back and retest every single sample. You retest samples where you have a suspicion that an athlete may be linked to whoever was distributing the designer drug. In the case of BALCO you would go back and test all BALCO-linked athletes, for example. There is just no reason to retest without a valid rationale and valid suspicion.
BH: What is the role of national tennis federations in the anti-doping efforts? If a country could test their own players, is it possible they could inform players before a tournament if they have a positive test (in effect warning them to pull out if necessary)?
RI: This varies by country. In most countries national level testing is done by the national anti-doping agency. Any anti-doping agency tipping off their own athletes of their own testing would be in serious breach of the no notice requirements of the WADA Code and could face repercussions from WADA and the IOC.
BH: The current ITF Anti-Doping program has a budget of around $1.6 million. Do you think tennis needs to dedicate more funds in hopes of creating an effective program? If so, why don’t you think they have done so?
RI: I can't really say. But I do know that tennis is probably in the top 10 International Federations in terms of spending on anti-doping - maybe even in the top five. Given the sophistication of doping today, detecting serious dopers is best handled by government agencies like USADA. More money is not always a smart way to fight doping. Look at cycling.
BH: You’ve been very open in discussion the subject of doping in tennis. How valuable is dialogue is in preventing a doping-related public shaming in tennis like we’ve seen in baseball and cycling?
I feel it is important to provide an insight into how modern anti-doping approaches work and in some cases don't work. I also feel it is important to correct misconceptions and allegations of conspiracy where I am informed of the true facts of different incidents.
For more on the doping topic, see: http://www.tennisnow.com/News/The-Doping-Dilemma.aspx