OpEd: Post-Pandemic Opportunities for Anti-Doping Movement to Embrace New Strategies

Anti-doping expert Ben Nichols says new technologies can help sport stay ahead of the cheats ... 

By Ben Nichols

International Sports Communications Consultant and Anti-Doping Expert

We’re not quite there yet - in some parts of the world, we’re not there at all - but as I put pen to paper here in rural England, there’s an acceptance that in a growing number of countries in the West, we are entering the final stages of the pandemic tunnel.

Thanks to a hugely successful vaccination rollout in the UK, the conversation will soon be about the post-pandemic era and a "living with Covid" narrative.

For sport, the post-pandemic era will mean many changes, the type of which we don’t quite yet know. For anti-doping, what changes will the new world herald that the old world did not?

The answer to that question really lies in the attitude and will of anti-doping advocates, organizations and decision-makers to explore and try new strategies. They should try not for the sake of trying, but for the real benefits that tech-led strategies can present.

If there’s one thing for sure, the use of digital and tech-led initiatives and strategies is proliferating fast in other industries. The Covid-19 pandemic has only hastened these changes. from the corporate sector to finance to science, all will have realized that technology and innovation can make their jobs easier, quicker and, in many cases, cheaper.

And they will have realized that the new post-pandemic world welcomes flexibility, agility and innovation; not stagnation.

Anti-doping has been criticized for being slow moving, overly bureaucratic, with an excessive amount of pen-pushing and a lack of rapid action. in recent years it has, in my view, started to put that reputation to bed by advancing faster with new strategies to combat the cheats. The Athlete Biological Passport, Intelligence & Investigations and the advent of Whistleblowing Lines are all examples of the industry adopting new tactics beyond traditional blood and urine testing.

What a great opportunity the new post-pandemic era presents anti-doping to continue its modernization project!

Front of mind is Remote Testing – or Virtual Testing, as it is more commonly known. Virtual Testing first came to fame when piloted by world-leading USADA, the US Anti-Doping Agency, in April 2020, just as the global pandemic began to wreak havoc.

Anti-doping has always relied on human blood and urine testing. As an unprecedented testing program in sports, Virtual Testing involved an athlete giving urine and blood samples in their own home while being watched remotely by a representative on a video conferencing platform. Leading U.S. athletes volunteered to take part in USADA’s pilot, including swimmers Katie Ledecky and Lilly King, and runner Emma Coburn.

It would seem star athletes could be on board. Ledecky said, "This is the perfect time to test something like this. I think it’s great for the circumstances we’re all in right now."

USADA was an organization not willing to sit back and see its industry as a victim of the global pandemic, rather it looked at the challenge through a lens of opportunity -- as a time to explore new strategies that offer flexibility and adaptability whilst continuing to protect the health, wellbeing and rights of clean athletes – pandemic or no pandemic.

And though it is not yet entirely proven - no one is yet suggesting that it should replace traditional human testing - it appears that virtual testing could complement human testing and other strategies while also helping anti-doping organizations conduct their programs more quickly and cost-efficiently.

Another cutting-edge tool is the Performance Monitoring for example, a service offered by the Anti-Doping Services division of sports and betting data-turned sports integrity organization, Sportradar.

As a cloud-based platform technology, Performance Monitoring provides anti-doping organizations instant information on athletes’ performance, bolstering their intelligence and investigation strategies. Then, when an athlete’s performance unexpectedly improves, the platform lets organizations review athletes’ performance results, look up background information such as injuries, and analyze the data in mere minutes.

In short, it allows anti-doping practitioners to work fast, further streamlining their work in a new era that will crave agility, flexibility and fast working.

These two strategies are just the beginning when it comes to anti-doping remaining at the forefront of innovation. The time surely has come for a conversation on how these strategies, and the others breaking through, can be embraced to a greater extent than is currently the case.

Variety, as they say, is the spice of life. And surely, variety - and, with it, unpredictability - is also the spice of anti-doping life, and the greatest weapon the movement has in its armory to beat the cheats.

About Ben Nichols

Ben is a leading Communications Consultant working in international sport, specializing in anti-doping and sports integrity. He is the former head of Media Relations for WADA; former Director of Communications for the Commonwealth Games Federation, and former Director of Communications for the AIU. He is also the founder and host of podcast series, Athletes: The Other Side, in which he interviews athletes about their professional stories and successes away from the sporting field.

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