The drugged cricketer December 6, 2006

WADA: less hectoring, more supervision, better evidence

Thank you all for a tremendoud debate on this important issue

Thank you all for a tremendoud debate on this important issue. Understandably it has sharply divided opinion. It will continue to do so.

Some of you are disappointed and angry by my claim that justice has been done. My interpretation of justice is that it has two elements. First, a due process. Second, a just outcome arising from that due process. In this case, the process involved setting a board policy, educating players, monitoring their drug status, and then hearing both sides of the argument at the first tribunal. Each stage of that process was flawed (see entries in 'The drugged cricketer' category). That taken with the scientific problems with ascribing causation to the presence of nandrolone in urine (a situation that I believe is a major problem for WADA and one that it owes it to the world's premier athletes to resolve) and the players' insistence that they did not take nandrolone are sufficient reasons to give the players the benefit of the doubt.

In any organisation people look to blame those below them. It is a major failing of WADA's stance. Whatever the circumstances, the ultimate blame lies with the cricketers or athletes or tennis players, says WADA. This simplistic and idealistic view takes no account of ground realitites such as the education of sportspeople, the support they receive from their governing body, or the drug and product licensing and validation regulations in each country. A rigid policy does not even contemplate the doubts about scientific evidence. It for these reasons that sportspeople have been able to argue, with the support of lawyers, that they are innocent. WADA needs to understand that in the world of medicine and science certainty is a preciously rare commodity.

Let's take the example of medicines and other herbal products in the world's poorer countries, some of which happen to be big players in the world of cricket. The World Health Organization has a major concern over the licensing and manufacture of medicines in poorer countries. Globally, ten per cent of drugs are thought to be fake with far higher percentages in poorer countries. There are international guidelines but these countries do not have the infrastructure or the financial resources to implement them.

In short, you can't be sure that even blockbuster international drugs are real. What hope do you have when you consider supplements and herbal products, which are even less stringently regulated? There is a wealth of research evidence to support this argument.

Another example that springs to mind is a research paper that we published when I was at the BMJ. The researchers analysed several chinese herbal products and found that just under 80% of them contained a steroid that was a prescription only drug in the UK and should not have been an ingredient without proper approval. There was certainly nothing on the labelling to suggest that the products contained a steroid. If this can (and does) happen in the UK, what hope for countries like India and Pakistan?

The simple point is that it is entirely plausible that a supplement taken in all innocence could contain a banned substance.

These facts taken together could be a recipe for despair but it won't be if we focus on systems and make them optimal. The PCB's system for player education and drug monitoring has been shown to be inadequate, possibly pathetic. Who at the PCB will take responsibility for that failure of management and leadership?

The ICC is supposed to be responsible for the conduct of its cricket boards and standardisation of procedures. You might have imagined that the ICC would have got its house in order after the Shane Warne diuretic controversy (an innocent attempt at weight loss or an attempt to mask more serious illicit drug use?). Who at the ICC will take responsibility for this failure of management and leadership?

Finally, what's the point of WADA if it cannot ensure that its signatories follow proper procedures and maintain standards. We hear a great deal of hectoring from WADA but what about hearing more about its attempts at supervision of governing bodies? What about hearing more about its efforts to improve our understanding of how performance-enhancing drugs are abused, metabolised, and identified? What about hearing more about efforts to assist countries that might not have the infratructure or the financial resources to develop watertight systems on their own? Who at WADA will take responsibility for these failure of managemenet and leadership?

Yes, of course, despite all these system failures the players may have taken performance-enhancing drugs deliberately. To believe that to be impossible would be foolhardy. But this is exactly why there has to be due process from beginning to end, a system that sportsmen and sportswomen will trust. Only then can you implement a zero-tolerance policy. Only then can you ruin people's careers and destroy their reputations. Some sports have got their houses in order. Cricket clearly has not.

Kamran Abbasi is an editor, writer and broadcaster. He tweets here