Increased doping in pandemic 'not a particular worry', says WADA chief

World anti-doping chiefs insist they are not overly worried by athletes who may have tried to take advantage of reduced drugs testing programmes during the coronavirus pandemic.

With just one month to go before the Tokyo Olympics, Olivier Niggli, the director general of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), told AFP in an interview that testing levels had made a significant, and timely, recovery.

“For sure, at the beginning of the pandemic, there had been a slow down of testing and anti-doping due to health measures,” Niggli said.

Although Covid-19 restrictions had had an initial impact, “we are now back to a level which is even higher than it used to be,” Niggli added.

“A lot of countries have simply closed down for all fields in society. But since March last year, things have recovered significantly, and to the point that… the number of tests that are being conducted, out of competition, are higher than they were at the same time in 2019, pre-pandemic.”

Turning to athletes potentially abusing strict restrictions on travel and face-to-face contact by turning to doping, Niggli said the issue was “not that straightforward”.

– Dismantle networks –

“Testing is not the only weapon in anti-doping,” said Niggli, who has worked as a lawyer in Switzerland.

“You have other means of fighting doping like the longitudinal profile and the athlete’s passport, storage of samples.

“So it’s not as simple as thinking that because you’re not going to get tested, you won’t be caught.”

Niggli added: “Also the reality that when there was no testing, there was no competition… no training.

“So it wasn’t a period of time where doping would have brought you any real benefits. So yes, maybe some have tried to take advantage of that, but it’s not something that I would say is a particular worry for us.”

Niggli, however, said doping was an “ever-evolving situation where more sophistication comes into the picture”. He cited not only new substances and new ways of ingesting drugs like micro-dosing, but also the influence of athletes’ entourages that demands investigations that can help dismantle networks of professionals who are helping the athletes to dope.

“That’s where you can see drastic change in how the fight against doping is conducted,” he said.

The use of dried blood spot testing is also being trialled at the Tokyo Olympics.

The technique — in which small samples are collected from a finger prick and blotted onto an absorbent card — could mark a new era in anti-doping, and WADA believes it could eventually allow for more athletes to be targeted and more tests to be carried out.

WADA will not be responsible for testing in Tokyo. That falls to the International Testing Agency, an independent organisation that implements anti-doping programs which has been delegated by the local organising committee under the authority of the International Olympic Committee.

“What we will have is a team of independent observers, that will be on the ground during the Games,” Niggli said, adding that there will also be a WADA-accredited laboratory.

“They are observing that everything is actually being performed in accordance with the rules.

“If they realized that things could be done differently or it could be improved, then they have a daily interaction with the ITA and those responses to the organising committee to ensure that some corrective action can be done on the day.”

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