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Olympic Games: Doping

Volume 612: debated on Wednesday 6 July 2016

[Mr Andrew Turner in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered doping and the Olympic Games.

It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to bring this matter before the House today and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner.

The issue of doping in sport is extremely serious, and we have to face up to it. Recent years have demonstrated the scale of the challenge and the need to ensure that we are vigilant in ensuring that systems are in place to detect and punish doping in sport and to protect clean athletes and, ultimately, the long-term health of athletes. Professional athletes dedicate their lives to their sport, training rigorously and making significant personal sacrifices in order to reach peak physical condition and compete at their very best.

There are umpteen examples over the years of cheats who have used banned performance-enhancing drugs not only to reach their physical potential, but to exceed it—sometimes greatly. Those cheats betray and undermine the dedicated efforts of athletes who play by the rules and seek to compete to the best of their natural ability, on a level playing field, under rules that everyone is aware of. In the modern day, that means that the World Anti-Doping Agency takes expert medical advice and produces a list of banned substances that no athlete competing in a sport may use as part of their training or preparation for that sport.

On 13 April I raised this matter with the Prime Minister during Prime Minister’s Question Time. He responded that it was to be discussed at the anti-corruption summit he was holding on 12 May. From the response to my follow-up letter on the subject following that summit, I was pleased to learn that the matter was indeed discussed and that a new international sport integrity partnership is to be launched next year, to better integrate the various international organisations and Governments in order to tackle corruption in sport. The response also mentioned the charter for sports governance, which was published on the day of the summit and outlines the main themes that will form a new UK governance code, which is currently being developed. I am sure the Minister will have more to say on that, and I look forward to those comments.

I turn to the context in which we find ourselves with regard to doping in sport. It is nearly 30 years since Ben Johnson failed a drug test after smashing the world record in the Olympic 100 metres. It is over a decade since Lance Armstrong was using performance-enhancing drugs to win the Tour de France, and four years since his offences were finally established and his titles stripped from him. We live in an age when the rewards in elite sports have never been greater, and thus the incentives to win at any cost have never been higher. In response to doping scandals such as those, the World Anti-Doping Agency was established in 1999 to promote and enforce a world anti-doping code, including a list of banned substances that is published annually. The responsibility for ensuring that an athlete does not take substances on the banned list lies with the athlete themselves.

The operation of the system is best exemplified by the recent failed drug test involving tennis player Maria Sharapova. Sharapova was the highest-paid female athlete in the world, but tested positive for a banned substance called meldonium. That drug is primarily used to improve blood circulation and is commonly used medically to combat heart disease. The substance was added to the list of banned substances on 1 January 2016, and Sharapova tested positive later that month at the Australian open tennis. Her defence was that she had been using the substance legally for 10 years and had not been aware that it had been added to the list of banned substances, having claimed not to have read several emails from tennis governing bodies advising of the addition of the substance to the list. She was banned from all competitions for two years, although an appeal is pending on the length of the ban.

The case raises important issues about performance-enhancing drugs in sport. First, given the constant evolution and development of pharmaceuticals, and medical and sports science more generally, it is inevitable that the list of banned substances will also evolve over time. Making additions once annually, at the beginning of each calendar year, and being absolutely clear that responsibility for compliance rests with the athlete is, I think, a reasonable way forward in order to be fair to all sides.

Secondly, however, the case raises the question of ethics. Sharapova did not need to take meldonium for any medical need; she took it because it enhanced her performance. I would argue that her actions in taking the substance purely to gain a competitive advantage justify the strict enforcement of the rules. If we accept that she was not aware of the rule change, it is difficult not to have sympathy for Sharapova, but she had ultimate responsibility for knowing what substances were banned and ensuring she complied with the rules. It may be tough on her, but those rules have to be applied evenly if we are to be fair to athletes who make the effort to ensure that they are clean and in compliance with the rules.

Andy Murray, the Olympic gold medallist, who hails from Dunblane in my constituency, is a model of sporting integrity and is on record as supporting the strict application of the rules. He stated earlier this year, on the news of Sharapova’s suspension:

“I think taking a prescription drug that you don’t necessarily need, but just because it’s legal, that’s wrong, clearly. That’s wrong.”

I am in full agreement with that sentiment, and the issue of prescription drugs may require further attention by the World Anti-Doping Agency when it considers what types of substances merit being banned in future years.

Turning specifically to this year’s Rio Olympics, the countdown has been somewhat overshadowed by the scandal of doping and associated corruption that has seen Russian athletes banned from the games and questions hanging over the participation of several other nations.

My constituent Yvonne Murray, who is now Yvonne Mooney, came third in the women’s 3,000 metres at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. She was beaten by a Soviet runner, Tetyana Samolenko, who five years later was found guilty of doping, and by a Romanian runner who had links to the Soviet doping programme. Ms Samolenko has been allowed to keep her Olympic medals, despite attempts by Ms Mooney to encourage the International Olympic Committee to take action. It claims that there was no way to prove that Ms Samolenko was doping at the time. Does my hon. Friend agree that athletes found guilty of doping at any time in their career should have all their medals removed, and that the medals of those who were placed behind them should be upgraded?

My hon. Friend makes a very reasonable point. Yvonne Murray has been cheated, or may have been cheated, of a medal by athletes who were doping. For me, that goes to the heart of why we need a regime that can successfully and robustly test and challenge athletes to make sure that they are clean. That is exactly why we need an effective regime combatting this.

The investigation of Russian athletes was instigated following an investigative documentary aired on German TV channel ARD entitled “Top-Secret Doping: How Russia Makes its Winners”. It alleged a systematic doping programme for the country’s athletes and widespread corrupt practice to conceal it. Following the documentary, the World Anti-Doping Agency established an independent commission to urgently investigate the allegations. The report by the independent commission was damning and led to the suspension of the Russian athletics federation in November 2015. That has, in turn, led to Russian athletes being banned from competing under the Russian flag at the Rio Olympics.

I would like to quote from the report, because it makes the scale of the issue crystal clear. In the summary of findings, it states:

“The investigation has confirmed the existence of widespread cheating through the use of doping substances and methods to ensure, or enhance the likelihood of, victory for athletes and teams. The cheating was done by the athletes’ entourages, officials and the athletes themselves.”

It goes on:

“In addition, evidence exists that confirms that coaches have attempted to manipulate or interfere with doping reports and testing procedures. They are also the source and counselling of athletes’ use of PEDs. The coaches are supported in their doping efforts by certain medical professionals.”

If I may, I will list the specific findings because they lay the position out. First, under the heading “A Deeply Rooted Culture of Cheating”, the report says evidence of

“cheating at all levels is widespread and of long standing.”

It includes the remark that many of the “more egregious offenders” were coaches who were themselves former athletes, and that a common justification for cheating was that everyone else was probably doing it.

Secondly, under “The Exploitation of Athletes”, the report states that as a result of that mindset, an open and accepted series of unethical behaviours and practices has become the norm. Even in cases where the athletes themselves seemed unwilling to participate in doping, they were threatened with not being considered for selection by the national federation. Thirdly, under “Confirmed Athletes Cheating”, the report states that the central allegation was upheld, although the independent commission found that a high percentage of athletes were unwilling to participate in, or co-operate with, the investigation.

Fourthly, under “Confirmed Involvement by Doctors, Coaches and Laboratory Personnel”, the report found evidence that the doping programme was systemic and widespread. The investigators were deliberately inhibited in their work by what was described as

“the intentional and malicious destruction of more than 1,400 samples by Moscow laboratory officials after receiving written notification from WADA to preserve target samples.”

Fifthly, under “Corruption and Bribery within IAAF”, the report identifies

“corruption and bribery practices at the highest levels of international athletics.”

The report is damning and reveals the enormity of the challenge we face. Its scale and findings cannot be underestimated. There was a collective disregard for athletes’ current and future state of health, and it was clear that with the right resources, testing can be and has been circumvented, whether through athletes getting advance notice of supposedly random tests or through the manipulation of the biological passport.

What is to be done? The World Anti-Doping Agency was founded

“with the aim of bringing consistency to anti-doping policies and regulations within sport organisations and governments right across the world.”

That is its mission statement, yet as its former president Dick Pound told me when I met him at Stirling University in April, WADA is expected to achieve that despite having an annual budget that is less than Maria Sharapova earned personally in endorsements last year.

The budget for WADA in 2015 was $29.5 million, with half the funding being supplied by states and half by the Olympic movement. Of that, the UK contributed $745,870. However, it is sobering that the investigation into Russian athletics cost $1.5 million—and that is only one sport in one country. According to Dick Pound, the WADA budget has been too low almost from the outset of its activities, and that example of the costs associated with pursuing just one investigation, which was clearly necessary given its findings, should be a wake-up call for anyone who shares the ideal of ridding sport of doping.

It is clear that WADA needs to be better resourced, and although I welcome the commitment and resources that the Government have put into the organisation, we as an international sporting community must collectively do more. There is a case for seeking more transparency and accountability from WADA. That is not meant as a criticism, but if we are to do what is necessary to beef up the role that it plays and commit the necessary level of resource, there needs to be an increased level of oversight.

For example, if the role played by WADA was better understood, it might be possible to increase and enhance the participation of stakeholders in efforts to challenge cheating in sport and improve policing and monitoring across a wider range of sports. Transparency would bring greater clarity to why decisions are made and why investigations are held, and it would force WADA to plan proactively for the long term to promote a culture change while changing conduct in the short term.

There is also a role for more education as a pre-emptive support and to help athletes avoid accidental doping, and I hope that that will be considered in future. Professional elite sports have never been more awash with money, and it is high time their representative organisations took greater responsibility for challenging the drug cheats. That means contributing more to the organisation that exists to do that work, with a code of practice that they have signed up to.

I hope that as the Government take forward discussions on a new governance code, they can bring their influence to bear on national sporting bodies and stress that as well as promoting and developing their particular sports, they have a shared responsibility to ensure that they promote and develop clean sport. We should also seek to encourage and protect whistleblowers in sport, including through anonymity, financial incentives or a faster and more effective mechanism within sports organisations to act swiftly and decisively on concerns raised.

A recent report in The Sunday Times regarding Mark Bonar raises important questions about the role of whistleblowers in the fight against doping, and about the accountability of UK Anti-Doping, which, according to the newspaper, was informed of Dr Bonar’s doping activities two years ago but failed to act. If that is true, how UK Anti-Doping is held to account is important, particularly in the light of the fact that it is taxpayer-funded to the tune of £6 million.

Given the Russian investigation, it is clear in which direction anti-doping efforts need to move: towards intelligence-led operations, which require greater involvement of stakeholders and whistleblowers. When WADA was set up, it provided global standardisation in the system of penalties and banned substances, and that system now needs to grow and incorporate greater intelligence and oversight of regional anti-doping and sports federations.

Media organisations such as The Sunday Times and the German TV channel ARD deserve huge credit for the investigatory journalism that they have provided to shine a light on these corrupt practices, but does that not also demonstrate a UK and world anti-doping regime that is reactive instead of proactive? Greater forward planning and a long-term strategy to change the culture are required, because the fight against doping in sport will be with us for the long term given the phenomenal amount of money in sport.

In closing, I want to mention the valuable research being undertaken at Stirling University in my constituency. Researchers have been working on these issues for 12 years, during which time they have developed expertise in the social, policy and educational aspects of it. Indeed, some of their work has been funded by WADA. The university’s focus is on excellence in sport and education, with the SportScotland institute of sport and other sports organisations in Stirling in close proximity. Given the expertise of the sports researchers and experienced athletes associated with the university, there is an opportunity to create a leading centre for anti-doping research and education here in the UK, and specifically in Stirling, where that expertise already resides. I hope that the Minister will consider that and perhaps meet me and university representatives in due course to discuss the idea in more detail. Again, I am very grateful for the opportunity to speak on this issue.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner, and I thank the hon. Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson) for securing this timely debate on an issue that strikes right at the heart of sporting integrity in the run-up to arguably the greatest sporting event on earth—the Olympics.

Although it is perhaps unavoidable that discussions on doping will be a factor around Rio 2016, given recent scandals, some of which the hon. Gentleman mentioned in his speech, we should remind ourselves how fortunate we are that the vast majority of athletes do not cheat and, from the British perspective, how fortunate we are to have UK Anti-Doping, one of the world’s leading anti-doping organisations. Its reputation has been gained through its robust, intelligence-led Clean Sport programme, including successful education initiatives and athlete testing across Olympic, Paralympic and professional sports. That reputation saw the World Anti-Doping Agency invite UKAD to manage the testing programme in Russia as part of the work to once again make Russia compliant with the anti-doping code.

We managed to secure enhanced funding for UKAD in the recent spending round, but given the work it already does with sport here in the UK and across the world, there is no doubt in my mind that that organisation has great potential to commercialise and expand its expertise. In a month’s time, our athletes will begin competing in Rio and UKAD is working with the British Olympic Association to create a robust and comprehensive pre-games testing plan. In addition, every athlete on the team will take part in a Clean Sport education programme and every member of the athlete support team will also undertake the Accredited Advisor of Coach Clean workshop, so they are fully versed on what to expect ahead of the games.

It would be helpful if that proactive approach could be replicated by every country ahead of a summer or winter games to help to guarantee a level playing field for all competitors. That desire drove the Prime Minister’s discussions at the anti-corruption summit in May and will form the basis of action in future.

The governance codes that are being developed, which the hon. Gentleman referenced in his speech, were set out in the sports strategy that I published in December. The codes are to drive reforms in governance, and we expect all sports to encourage clean, drug-free activity among their participants. The codes will deal with a number of matters relating to integrity, including doping and match fixing.

As concerning as it has been to read of the doping scandals around Russian sport in particular, it is important to recognise the work of the international sporting community in mitigating such doping scandals. Although the hon. Gentleman cited high-profile cases that have brought sports into disrepute, we must remember that there are thousands of sportsmen and women who have broken records without drugs and inspired generations. It is really important that we continue to remember that, because although there are some high-profile cases, many of which he mentioned, there are lots of really clean athletes out there who do their sport the best they can without enhancement.

On the basis of fairness and high-profile cases, does the Minister have sympathy with Alain Baxter, the Olympic bronze-winning medallist of 2002 in the winter Olympics? He was banned and stripped of his medal for taking a Vicks inhaler made in the USA—as opposed to one made in the UK—as it had traces of levmetamfetamine. It was not on the banned list, but he still lost his medal as a result, even though he was not part of the scandal of cheating.

There are always exceptions that make it difficult to create a rule. The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) talked about her constituent and the hon. Member for Stirling mentioned Sharapova. Of course, there are always lists of banned substances, but substances evolve and some people get innocently caught up in that. The athlete and all those around the athlete have a responsibility to ensure that whatever the athlete is taking is not on the banned list. We have deep sympathy for people such as the constituent of the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry), but we have to apply rules to everybody. It is a complex issue, but we should remember that the vast majority of athletes go to the Olympic games and compete in all other sports in a clean way and with integrity.

Without doubt, the International Association of Athletics Federations vote to ban Russian track and field athletes from international competition not only reflected the strength of feeling about cheating; it also told the world that doping will not be tolerated. Although it is important that Russia was sanctioned, it is equally important that the next steps, such as ensuring future compliance with the code, were addressed immediately.

It is reassuring that, as part of a five-point plan for Rio, the International Olympic Committee announced that Russian athletes outside of track and field, and countries currently non-compliant with the World Anti-Doping Agency code, will now be subject to strict additional pre-Rio testing before being allowed to compete at the games. It is only right that those competing in Rio can do so in the knowledge that athletes from non-compliant countries have been tested and declared clean ahead of competition. That should give us added confidence that our British athletes are competing against clean athletes.

It would be naive to think that the testing methods and intelligence expertise in operation across the world counteract all doping. The desire of those to cheat and profit from doing so will always mean that dopers will do all they can to try to be one step ahead of the testing process. The hon. Member for Stirling mentioned the constant development in pharmaceuticals and he is right. We have seen that in other areas of legislation, such as that on legal highs. However, with that evolution comes better testing. As we have seen in recent weeks, the re-testing of samples, from both Beijing and London, has found a number of positive tests. That is a result of the ever-evolving testing and intelligence techniques, and it sends a message that there is no hiding place for any athlete who chooses to cheat.

On the point made by the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw, the IOC’s “Olympic Agenda 2020” recommends that athletes who lose out on a medal to athletes who test positive receive their medals. I sincerely hope that the IOC takes forward that recommendation. The honourable thing would be to retrospectively take away a medal if it is proven that an athlete has cheated.

The hon. Member for Stirling mentioned WADA and the need for better transparency and accountability. I am not sure whether he is aware that I was recently appointed to WADA’s foundation board, which is the agency’s decision-making body. That is an important position for the UK at a time when a united, global approach to eliminating doping is required. The UK has long been an advocate of tough sanctions on doping and I look forward to working with my international partners to maintain the integrity of every sport.

At a national level, we cannot be complacent, and we are reviewing the effectiveness of our legislation to combat doping. Existing legislation under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 carries sentences of up to 14 years’ imprisonment for trafficking and supply of banned substances. The world anti-doping code now includes an automatic four-year ban, under which an athlete misses an Olympic games cycle. The review is currently under way and, should it become clear that stronger criminal sanctions are needed, we will not hesitate to act.

The hon. Member for Stirling is right to speak about the work of the University of Stirling with such pride, and I was interested to hear about the work that it continues to undertake. I would be delighted to meet with representatives of the university, and he can feel free to contact the office to arrange that.

The reaction of the international community in response to the doping headlines over the past 12 months sends a powerful message ahead of Rio, not least that a successful track and field nation such as Russia can be banned from an Olympic games. It is an unfortunate truth that doping is a part of sport and will always be a threat as long as people look to gain an advantage. As a result, we must never be complacent in the fight against drugs cheats. Every positive test hardens our resolve in the fight against doping. For Rio and beyond, it is important that we give clean athletes the level playing field on which to compete, which their hard work and integrity deserve and from which the next generation will be inspired.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.