Why Clean Protocol drugs testing needs a chance: comment

When Rita Jeptoo successfully defended her Boston and Chicago titles last year, she secured a $500,000 jackpot as the top-ranked female marathon runner in the world.

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The 33-year-old was heralded for reaping the rewards for hard work over a long career, until an A sample from a drugs test taken a fortnight before Chicago proved positive. An inspiring story of athletic achievement was dwarfed by one of doping. 

With every convicted offender, the spectacle of elite competition diminishes. Until Jeptoo’s positive test, African athletics had been comparatively untainted. Now rumours abound and belief is shaken. 

Triathlon boasts just a handful of high-profile drug busts: Nina Kraft’s hastily aborted Kona win in 2004; the farcical Lisa Hütthaler, who doped then tried bribery in 2009; Virginia Berasategui’s tearful mea culpa in 2013; and Brigitte McMahon, triathlon’s first Olympic female champion, testing positive for erythropoietin five years later. Despite improved science, elite testing pools and biological passports, is triathlon really that much cleaner, or is it ‘there by the grace of god’?

The premise ‘innocent until proven guilty’ means that dirty athletes race until they’re caught, but by then medals are often awarded and national anthems sung. So what if we flipped our thinking so only those who ‘proved’ they were clean could start? It sounds far-fetched, medieval, an affront to human rights, but is it the logical end-game for the fledgling Clean Protocol (www.cleanprotocol.org), started by the not-for-profit World Clean Sports Organisation?

The complex certification process sees the athletes sit a series of psychometric and cognitive tests and involves analysing ocular motor deception or, crudely, subconscious eye twitches, akin to a lie detector – although it’s not an analogy founder Teague Czislowski is fond of.

He admits the test is not foolproof. To date it’s thought to be about 85% accurate, so has a far higher chance of returning a ‘false positive’ than recognised clinical environments (World Anti-Doping Agency claims its errors are one in 10,000). But what if governments, governing bodies and WADA embraced its potential? 

At the Ironman World Championships in October, Clean Protocol certified a handful of professionals, including Britain’s Dan Halksworth, Harry Wiltshire and Jodie Swallow. Others were understandably reticent, but Andrew Johns, two-time British Olympian and Clean Protocol’s athlete liaison, believes attitudes have shifted such that, if the programme was repeated now, at least 50% of professionals would participate. 

Those rumblings sound promising, but Clean Protocol may not last the course. It’s reliant on private funding, which is not sustainable long term, and Czislowski is disillusioned by the status quo. “Unfortunately I’ve found those in charge of anti-doping programmes the most unhelpful,” he says. “They barely engage with us or, when they do, recite their mantra of support for the current system.”

Last year, former WADA president Dick Pound wrote a damning report outlining how anti-doping programmes are failing, blaming a lack of will among sports organisations, governments and athletes. Czislowski agrees. “Kona gave us the ability to look through a small window into the potential future of clean sport. Few others share the vision,” he says. “I’m hopeful the way to make sport cleaner is to improve behavioural change mechanisms. However, we are too early and lack resources. I give triathlon a 20% chance of becoming cleaner. Most athletes want it clean but do not speak out and the race organisers have no will. Clean Protocol is not perfect. It is just a start.”

It’s easy to write off Clean Protocol as unworkable, both practically and financially, but solutions to great problems often require visionaries. If the utopia is a gateway to clean sport, maybe it’s worth a try.

(Illustration: Daniel Seex) 

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