Nicole Sapstead Op-Ed: “There needs to be far greater engagement with athletes”

The theft and publication of Olympic athletes’ Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) certificates by cyber-criminals is wrong and has rightly been condemned internationally.

None of those named by the Fancy Bears group of hackers have broken any rules and I am saddened sportsmen and women have felt it necessary to defend themselves since the leaks began.

At the same time, public perceptions concerning the use of otherwise-banned treatments do need to be addressed.
Most of us will have at some time had condition, either on a temporary or permanent basis, which requires medication. We have the ability to go and have those remedied by a doctor. But the implication of some of the noise around TUEs is that athletes cannot have the same conditions as the general public. 

One of the potential consequences of this dubiously-motivated leak – as Great Britain’s hockey star Sam Quek has already pointed out – is that fear of being branded a cheat leads sportsmen and women to put their own personal health at risk.

UK Anti-Doping’s procedures on the use of TUEs are more stringent than those in some other international jurisdictions and consistency around the world would help instil public confidence. Our process sees applications decided by three independent experts, including one expert in the condition for which treatment is being sought. The decision of the three panellists must be unanimous.

Does this mean our system cannot be abused? I am never going to say that something is impossible. One measure being proposed is that when athletes apply for TUEs, they are examined physically by a wholly independent medic not connected to their own GP. It could be time-consuming and costly but if people are worried that there is the ability to manipulate the system then it may well be worth it.

The recent leaks have also led to calls for greater transparency, with some demanding all TUEs be disclosed publicly. We had the thankless task last week of contacting Great Britain’s Olympic team to warn them their records could be exposed. Although many were pretty relaxed – because they have nothing to hide – some were angry and some worried that people would draw adverse inferences from what they were reading. A number of these TUEs are very old; prescribed once, when a number of these athletes were at the start of their careers.

If athletes want to put that information out there, they are perfectly entitled to. But as far as we are concerned, this is confidential medical data – often for deeply personal conditions – which we are committed to protecting. Even publishing redacted TUEs is problematic because, without the proper context, people are inevitably going to jump to the wrong conclusion.

Another debate that has been reignited is whether international federations should be involved at all in administering TUEs or whether the whole anti-doping process should be handled by an independent agency.
Whilst the latter would be one option, I do think there is a way international federations could continue to run an anti-doping programme provided it is through an arms-length entity with its own board and executive.

It is a difficult time for the anti-doping movement but it is good these issues are being discussed because, hopefully, a clear marker will be set down for how things should be going forward.

Part of it comes down to money and the first question I would ask is: do sports, do governments think anti-doping is important? And if the answer is yes, then my second question would be: so, what’s it worth to your organisation, to your brand?

When you look at the revenue that sport generates, I think it is wholly unacceptable and a sad indictment of how anti-doping is generally perceived that those involved remain wedded to this notion of a 50-50 funding alongside governments. It might have been acceptable in 1999 when the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was established but I really do not think it is acceptable now. It is no longer a credible argument.

Some sports can afford to pay more than others. The funding model for WADA, and indeed for organisations like UKAD, should reflect the reality of the risk, which mainly rests with sport, and the need for independent governance throughout anti-doping. National Anti-Doping Organisations are clear in their position that WADA should be better funded and have enhanced powers around enforcement.

More than ever before, there needs to be far greater engagement with athletes; many have lost faith in the anti-doping movement. I have never heard athletes more vocal than they were about the state of anti-doping during and after the Olympics.

Without the athletes the sporting world would come to a halt. Isn’t it about time that sports and anti-doping organisations listened to their athletes? It should be our number one priority to provide them with an environment of clean sport and clean competition in which everyone has faith.

This op-ed appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on 26 September 2016.

 

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