News and Media


David Howman, Director General of the World Anti-Doping Agency: Sophisticated cheat is most dangerous enemy

WADA’s Director General resolved to uphold integrity of sport

David Howman, WADA’s Director General, travels from conference to conference, from meeting to meeting and talks about integrity, honesty and the fight against doping. He listens and he learns, and ensures that practices are put in place and upheld. If you believe in clean sport he is what you would call “one of the good guys”.

But in the shadows, the sophisticated cheats are at work. And they rarely work alone. Each one has their entourage, their enablers, who help them to break the World Anti-Doping Agency code and at the moment, for the most part, they’re getting away with it. According to Howman the sophisticated cheat is the most dangerous enemy in the fight against doping. After all, how do you fight an enemy you cannot see?

“I think they’ve been sophisticated for a quite a while,” he says from a hotel room in Budapest, where he has been for the last two days.

“I don’t think there’s anything that has come up in a hurry over the last 12 months, but it’s more of a continuation of how good the cheaters are. That’s something that’s concerned me for quite a while. This is nothing new for me but it’s certainly something for the anti-doping community to look at very carefully.

“The characters, they vary, but at the end of the day there are a lot of people advising those that cheat. It’s not just one group, there are several, and I think each one has their own level of expertise.”

The sophisticated cheat isn’t just the athlete then, it’s the complete entourage as well. The doctors, the chemists, the couriers and muted bystanders who see but never speak.

“Also, it’s not just one sport, it’s more than one sport,” said Howman.

“There’s a collection of people, most of whom have no connection from the sport apart from the connection they have with this particular athlete.”

With resources stretched, stagnation appears to have set in within the fight against doping. Howman disagrees with the term “stagnation” but admits that the percentage of cheats could well be in double figures – through all sports, not just cycling, a clear indication that tests are no longer enough to catch those that stray outside of WADA sporting lines.

“You just need to look at the annual test results and ask if the people who are possibly cheating are being caught. Out of 260,000 tests taken in 2010 you see that only one percent was positive and only 36 of them were EPO. So surely we’re not catching them all. We should be looking at that every day.”

More than looking, Howman is acting. In the last 12 months, WADA has set up ties with Interpol and international customs across the world, taking the fight to the sophisticated cheaters who navigate through target testing and biological passports. However, as yet, results have been slow and Howman cannot confirm an instance where third party agencies have helped to crack down on doping, although he adds that WADA has a number of irons in the fire.

“I think it’s reached an occasion where we should look at everything. I’ve been challenging people to do that and we have to lead that processes. I think the fight against doping hasn’t stagnated, that’s not the right word, but I think we’ve reached a crossroads where testing itself is not going to catch all the cheats so it’s up to us, having acknowledged that.

“Generally speaking, the information we have is that there is still doping going on but I don’t want to single out cycling. I’ve been quoted as saying double digits [percentage of athletes doping] and I suppose that’s what it is. There are still those that think they can cheat and get away with it. I’m not going to put a number on it, but it’s certainly a level that is concerning. The clean athletes are in the majority, and I don’t have any hesitancy in that. I don’t want to be all Doomsday but I want us to be realistic.”

Howman and WADA’s reference to double digits refers to recent research which the association has carried out, but the final findings will not be available until later in the year. In cycling, the recent developments of the biological passport and the no needle policy have been roundly welcomed but with no new passport cases in two years and a needle policy that has little proof of enforcement, there is a long way to go, especially if cheats move further ahead in doping practices.

“The risk is there that they are becoming more sophisticated and the risk therefore isn’t something that I want to let go. I think what we have to do is say that’s the potential and we have to confront those challenges.

“What essentially goes on is that athletes and these sorts of people are doing micro-dosing, using cocktails, patches and the use of substances that means that they have the benefit of the substances in their body for the shortest amount of time but for the most amount of benefit. The testing will mean that if they tested in full-flight during an event they might be caught but if they’re not tested until afterwards then the likelihood of being caught is pretty low. They’ll go to extraordinary lengths.”

Extraordinary lengths need extraordinary measures of both deterrence and detection, and along with allies in Interpol there is the exploration of four-year bans being more readily applied. WADA’s code is currently under evaluation with a redraft scheduled in 2013. The first draft is expected for June but there will be two phases of consultation and a second redraft will be written.

Howman is nothing but patient but perhaps his greatest virtue is his resolve. A resolve to uphold integrity in spite of the harshness he and WADA confronts and limited tools they have to fight with.

“I don’t really get frustrated. There’s nothing that keeps me from sleeping at night, but there are issues I’d love to see addressed in a faster fashion but that’s just impossible so I have to retain patience.

“I’m a great believer in the integrity of sport and what sport can give you as a society and to the young people that we nurture. I’ll never deviate from that and anything I can personally do to maintain that I’ll do that, whether it’s anti-doping or anti-corruption because this so valuable to protect.”

Howman doesn’t get emotional, after all displaying emotions isn’t what he’s paid to do, but if his resolve and fortitude was carried by the rest of the anti-doping authorities, he and the rest of us wouldn’t have to wait so long for results and the sophisticated cheat would be the one having the sleepless nights.