Tokyo 2020: Will the pandemic Games have a clean doping sheet?

Drug testing in sport dropped off when Covid hit, but it’s ramped up for these Olympics

Paul O’Donovan of Team Ireland at Tokyo 2020: ‘There is a lot more testing being done between the rounds, which is good to see for sure.’ Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images|

Paul O’Donovan of Team Ireland at Tokyo 2020: ‘There is a lot more testing being done between the rounds, which is good to see for sure.’ Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images|

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Missed tests and spoiled samples: just how clean are the pandemic Games?

They warned us in the Tokyo playbook well in advance that everyone would be tested on arrival and then for the first three consecutive days after that. There would be no avoiding it, and we were also told to be careful our samples weren’t spoiled in any way as to render the testing meaningless.

No eating, drinking, smoking, brushing your teeth or using mouthwash within 30 minutes of submitting your sample – in this case the several repeated spits of saliva delivered via a short plastic straw into a small test tube, which is then immediately sealed in a plastic bag and identified by an 11-digit barcode along with your seven-digit accreditation number. No exceptions, no excuses.

Only, when they showed up outside our Tokyo hotel on Saturday morning to collect our second test, my honest fear was that those few squares of 85 per cent dark chocolate not long down the little red hatch were likely to spoil my sample. They took it away anyway.

Then, on Sunday, they didn’t show up at all – that third daily test still awaiting collection and my fear now being there could be some missing whereabouts sanction of some sort. There are plenty of other tales where that came from.

Because for now at least the conversation around all the Covid-19 testing in Tokyo, particularly among the athletes, has been a lot louder than the usual Olympic conversation around anti-doping, perhaps because everyone knows the number of tests carried out over the last year or so have dropped off considerably, in some countries remaining worryingly low.

Single positive

Two days in, Tokyo has yet to confirm a single positive doping test, nor have there been any in the immediate run-up, unusual in itself. The testing is definitely back in some places: before his exit in the men’s doubles semi-final stage on Sunday, Philip Doyle spoke about being tested for the first time in a long time after a qualifying heat, completely welcoming it at the same time.

“It’s great to see that they’re testing again in the sport,” he said. “Some of the stuff recently with the federations, it’s nice to see they’re trying to keep the sport clean and that play fair atmosphere, because when you come to the Olympics you expect to be on the start line with everyone on the same platform.”

Paul O’Donovan also spoke about the apparent increase in testing of late.

“I’d say, yeah, there definitely looks to be. None of the regattas I have been at before where they tested between the heats, it’s usually only after the finals, so there is a lot more testing being done between the rounds, which is good to see for sure.”

Traditionally the International Olympic Committee (IOC) likes to make a big noise about the number of tests being carried out during each Games, although Tokyo has certainly been more muted. The IOC has since delegated the management of all this to the International Testing Agency (ITA), which in Tokyo has a team of 24 managers supervising 250 doping control officers (DCOs). They are expected to collect around 5,000 urine and blood samples from a pool of over 11,000 athletes, plus more than 4,000 Paralympians.

What is certain is that the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) was forced to dramatically reduce out-of-competition testing at the height of the first wave last year. In April and May 2020, Wada reported just 3,203 tests across all global sport, compared to 52,365 during those months in 2019. Whatever about spoiled samples, there’s a lot of tests that were missed.

“Unless you’re a fool, you’d have to be concerned,” Travis Tygart, the CEO of the US Anti-Doping Agency, said recently. “You were starting in a totally unacceptable place for athletes who were being held to the highest standards, and the badness has only potentially gotten worse because of the reductions in testing due to Covid.”

Foolish

Few athletes would be foolish enough to be doping during competition. If they were cheating, this was likely to be done well in advance, particularly in parts of the world where testing was zero in the face of Covid-19. Wada has pointed to an improving situation as Tokyo approached; still, there was a 45 per cent reduction in testing around the world compared with 2019, and in the first quarter of 2021, there was still a roughly a 20 per cent reduction in overall testing compared with 2019.

It may not be an entirely futile operation. Remember anti-doping in London 2012? Part of the deal there was to bring pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline on board as sponsors of the anti-doping programme, with the promise of the most rigorous if not foolproof testing in Olympic history. There would be 6,250 tests, on over half the number of competitors, including all three medallists in every event, each sample tested for 240 banned substances within 24 hours of being taken.

By the closing of those Games, they’d found just nine adverse findings from those reported 6,250 tests. Now, nine years later, things looking a lot different, the number of positive doping cases revealed just retrospective testing numbering 149 (95 of which were in athletics, 48 by Russian athletes), more than Beijing 2008 and Athens 2004 combined.

Under Wada rules, all samples can be retrospectively tested eight years after being taken (in 2015 this was increased to 10 years), which means London’s retrospective testing ended this time last year. The final numbers from Rio won’t be in until 2026, and for Tokyo, it will be 2031 before we’ll know for sure just how clean the pandemic Games turned out to be.

Tokyo 2020

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