Doping controls at the World Cup in Brazil leave a lot to be desired
Samples must be flown some 36 hours away to Lausanne – some 5,833 miles from São Paulo,
Fifa president Sepp Blatter: who cares that Brazil has failed to provide a testing lab approved by the World Anti-Doping Agency, when no player has failed a drugs test at the World Cup since Diego Maradona in 1994?. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP
You don’t have to be Ben Johnson to understand that some of the finest performance enhancing drugs available to mankind can disappear from a doping sample if it’s not tested within 36 hours – more or less the same length of time it takes to fly from Manaus, deep in the Brazilian Amazon, on to São Paulo, then across the Atlantic to a Swiss city on the shores of Lake Geneva. Assuming there are no flight delays or missed connections.
You don’t have to be Michelle de Bruin to understand that the way those samples are handled and transported can be a dodgy business, and securing the chain of custody from 12 cities across Brazil to a laboratory in Lausanne may be impossible to guard against. At least in the legal or counter-legal sense.
You don’t have to be Lance Armstrong to understand that most performance enhancing drugs are actually just illegal training tools, anyway, and the idea of testing anyone in or around competition these days is a mostly useless exercise. Unless someone has been following their biological passport, or it’s only the good old-fashioned stimulants they’re on.
None of this seems to be of any great concern to those keenly looking forward to the World Cup as the greatest sporting show on earth.
His sample actually showed up five different variants of the stimulant ephedrine, although it’s said the only reason Maradona was caught is because they wanted him caught.
None of this seems to be any great concern to Fifa, either, who have always claimed that performance enhancing drugs don’t work in the beautiful game of football. Or, to quote Uefa president Michel Platini, “I don’t think there is any form of organized doping in soccer”.
There are some famous Italian and Spanish clubs who might disagree, but Fifa reckon they have the numbers to prove it: of the 230,000 samples analysed on football players from 2005 to 2013, only 752 came back positive, and of those just 93 were for steroids or hormones, while the other 659 were for cocaine, marijuana and other so-called recreational drugs.
Those numbers might sound reassuring compared to what athletics and cycling must throw up every year, although on closer inspection, they are not.
According to Wada figures, 27,836 athletes were tested worldwide in 2012, compared to 28,008 in football – when the pool of footballers is naturally far greater.
And while 1.8 per cent of athletics tests came back positive, football wasn’t that far behind, with 1.3 per cent. (Cycling positives, by the way, came in at 3.7 per cent.)
The fact that most footballers are still tested at stadiums and training sites – unlike athletes, who are more typically tested after a surprise knock on the door – is hardly reassuring, either.
That’s not saying football doesn’t deserve to be presented as a clean and perfectly legit game, at least beyond the constantly orchestrated diving techniques, the frequent feigning of injury, and the occasionally deliberate handball.
But should any footballer have been tempted to sway towards some sort of performance enhancing drug – recreational or otherwise – then he probably won’t have much to worry about when the World Cup gets underway next Thursday.
The problem is that Brazil used to have a Wada-accredited lab, in Rio de Janeiro, before testing was suspended there, last November, when it repeatedly failed to correctly determine the results on samples sent there to evaluate its proficiency.
So, what the World Cup organisers have agreed instead is to fly all the samples taken over the course of the tournament to the Wada-accredited lab in Lausanne, some 5,833 miles away from São Paulo, or even further, depending on which of the 12 host cities the sample was actually taken.
From Manaus – where England, Italy, the United States, Portugal, Cameroon, Croatia, Honduras and Switzerland will each play a group match – it could take at least 36 hours, and by the time the results actually come back, most of those teams will have played another game, or indeed been eliminated.
A lot can happen to a doping sample in those 36 hours, no matter how well it’s stored and carried. Which is why before the London Olympics, two years ago, so much emphasis was placed on the fact every sample taken during the Games would be fully tested for 240 prohibited substances within 24 hours, at the purpose-built Wada-accredited lab in Harlow.
Now, imagine the fuss that would be made if, two years from now, the Olympics were about to get underway in Rio and there was no guarantee that samples from athletes like Usain Bolt would be tested for another 36 hours.
The people who run these shows like to point out an important difference between the Olympics and the World Cup: the Olympics are awarded to a city, while the World Cup is awarded to a country – although when it comes to drug testing, Brazil now and Rio 2016 are actually a world apart.