Unlikely united front could deter dopers
With all due respect to anti-doping science, it's been shown time and time again that criminal justice authorities wield at least as weighty a hammer in combating the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports. And, in North America, at least, it appears the grand, stubborn tradition of infighting and territorialism between agencies and authorities with overlapping jurisdiction is waning. If that continues, athletes who dope might find that, although there are ways to beat a test, it will become a lot harder to beat an entire system.
The Partnership for Clean Competition -- a collaborative effort between the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, the U.S. Olympic Committee, Major League Baseball and the National Football League -- held its annual conference on anti-doping last week. The group was formed in 2008 to fund research in the field and will continue for at least the next four years, according to terms announced at the conference. The gathering, which also included scientific researchers, physicians, lab directors and ethicists, is one of the few opportunities for representatives of the USOC, USADA, MLB, the NFL and the World Anti-Doping Agency to be in the same room at the same time.
It's not always smooth sailing in the alphabet soup. On any given day, the aforementioned parties can be at odds over competing agendas and interests. But in the past 10 years, mutual wariness has given way to more trust, respect and give-and-take in a few key working relationships -- an alliance that should continue to help tighten the net around athletes who dope.
In the United States, the BALCO case that eventually ensnared athletes in professional leagues and Olympic-style sports was the turning point in forging a rapport between a then-relatively new USADA and federal investigators. BALCO also made Food and Drug Administration special agent Jeff Novitzky, who led the probe when he was with the Internal Revenue Service, the face of law enforcement's anti-doping efforts in this country.
So it was only natural that Novitzky, a participant in a panel discussion about the role of intelligence gathering, would bring along a few slides of the 2003 BALCO raid to illustrate the benefits of sharing information and expertise. Novitzky pointed out that agents such as himself aren't educated in the chemistry of doping or its potential health consequences. For that reason, USADA chief science officer Larry Bowers went along with the feds to sort through the evidence seized when the BALCO search warrant was executed. That and other collaborations since have made USADA's interaction with the government a "blueprint" of how cases should be handled around the world, Novitzky said.
It was a rare non-courtroom public appearance for Novitzky, who has been at the forefront of the recent, ongoing investigation of Lance Armstrong and other figures in professional cycling. Novitzky didn't go anywhere near the Armstrong case in his remarks last week, but he did address in general terms a topic targeted by critics during prosecutions of high-profile athletes such as baseball players Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and Olympic track star Marion Jones.
"What is the federal government doing involved in these cases?" Novitzky asked rhetorically. "Sports doping is not illegal. Other activities that go along with it are."
(USADA CEO Travis Tygart, who moderated the panel discussion, noted that the U.S. government also has a mandate to advance anti-doping efforts through a global UNESCO treaty signed in 2008.)
Novitzky outlined the boilerplate reasoning for the FDA's involvement -- the fact that many PEDs, such as the designer steroids unearthed in BALCO, are "dangerous, unapproved drugs that haven't been tested on anybody." Such drugs become "trend-setters," Novitzky said, obtained first by elite athletes, then dribbled out into the general population.
Six years after the seizure of BALCO records resulted in the identification of the designer steroid Madol, a raid on a bodybuilding enterprise revealed 16 supplements containing Madol as an ingredient, he said. He showed slides of medical records (with names redacted) that showed athletes' blood values and liver enzymes pingponging wildly when they submitted to a doping regime, and correspondence that showed the dosages they were receiving were "haphazard."
Then Novitzky cited a factor behind these investigations that's more difficult to quantify.
"I personally have had the unfortunate experience of speaking to parents of kids who are no longer with us because of use or aftereffects of use of steroids," he said. "They told me the reason they were doing that was because they were looking up to their role models."
A few minutes later, Novitzky addressed what he called the "myth" that doping is necessarily a function of personality.
"I've had, in the last 10 years, a really unique opportunity in a very unique setting to have dozens and dozens and dozens of very candid discussions with users of these drugs," Novitzky said. "Most of the time, most of these athletes were very, very candid with me about what they were doing, why they were doing it, how much they were doing ...
"I've talked with people in certain sports that [say], 'You know, we don't have a drug problem in our sport, our athletes are good people.' A majority of the athletes that I spoke with, I consider they were pretty good people. They were good people that made bad decisions."
There is a limit to what federal investigators share with USADA in some situations; grand jury testimony is confidential, for example, and prosecutors and investigators often tend to be "selfish" (in Novitzky's words) about keeping potential evidence close to the vest. Some athletes who have doped are more comfortable communicating with the government than with USADA because their legal liability is relatively low, whereas their careers can be jeopardized if they are suspended from competition. However, in practice, Tygart said many athletes wind up speaking with both entities -- and receive lower penalties from USADA because of their cooperation.
Similarly, WADA, which spells out the rules governing athletes in Olympic sports but does not enforce them, has pragmatic reasons to want to facilitate the exchange of information. The agency already serves as an intermediary (often through Interpol, a global coordinating agency) for legal authorities in different countries.
Director general David Howman, a former criminal defense lawyer, has talked openly about the challenge posed by organized crime's worldwide role in trafficking of performance-enhancing drugs. The agency also has a formal agreement with the international oversight body for the pharmaceutical industry to help track what experimental drugs are leaching into sports.
The need for scrutiny across international borders led naturally to a recent hire by WADA that is another example of cross-pollination between anti-doping agencies and government. Taking stock of the volume of data and the need to integrate it with testing methods, WADA created the new position of Chief Investigations Officer this fall. To fill it, the agency turned to a veteran of the war on steroids in the U.S.: Longtime Drug Enforcement Administration agent Jack Robertson, who spearheaded Operation Raw Deal and Operation Gear Grinder, cases that successfully targeted grassroots supply chains of anabolic steroids.
"He's not going to undertake investigations," Howman told reporters attending the PCC conference at NFL headquarters in midtown Manhattan. "He's going to gather information that others can give us, use it for what we do and share it with those who can take steps."
In the real world, most resources in the sprawling global infrastructure that now includes national anti-doping agencies, governments and security personnel in professional sports leagues are dedicated to catching and punishing those who made their minds up long ago.
Education is a great concept, but testing and sanctions likely will always trump ethics and health concerns as a deterrent.
Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.