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Q&A: WADA executive David Howman on the current state of doping

WADA director general David Howman sits down with Matthew Beaudin and talks about the current state of doping in sport

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In the upcoming issue of Velo, senior writer Matthew Beaudin examines the use of Xenon gas and some potential grey areas in international doping rules. He sat down with WADA director general David Howman, who joined the agency in 2003. Howman had previously spent time working for the New Zealand Sports Drug Agency and was also an accomplished junior tennis player.

VeloNews: We’ve seen some interesting things lately, notably the use of xenon at the Olympic Games, which was not specified as illegal, but maybe it wasn’t … ethical. Are the rules absolutely clear when it comes to anti-doping?
David Howman: Generally speaking, the rules are black and white. The issue you talk about is a more prohibitive list issue. For a substance to be on the list, it can bring in the spirit of sport component. So to be on the list, you have to set aside two or three criteria. One is, the substance has to have the potential to be performance enhancing. Two, it has to be bad for the athlete’s health. And three, it can be contrary to the spirit of sport. So you hit two of the three and it can go on the list.

The grey area, if you like, the way you mentioned it, is so, what is concrete to the spirit of sport? And when is that likely to be invoked by a list committee and then — because they’ve got to make the recommendations — but primarily by the governance of WADA, which is the executive committee. We’ve had a couple of occasions where the issue has been freely debated. You remember the use of hypoxic tents and the hyperbaric chambers. A few of those issues where it has been felt that it could be in that category of contrary to the spirit of sport. The decisions that were taken at the end of the day were that the executive committee did not want to invoke that, therefore did not include those tents on the list as a prohibited method.

So when you come down to this gas thing, and they haven’t had a debate about it yet, that is an area where, again, it could be invoked. Is this use of this substance or this method contrary to the spirit of sport? … Obviously to be on the list, you have to set aside one of the other two. Is it bad for the athlete’s health? Or [is it] performance enhancing? Now for the first one, that’s a medical issue. The second one is a scientific issue.

VN: Is it inevitable people will always push these boundaries?
DH: To turn away from doping — I mean, what you find in sport is that all sports people try to play to the extent that the rules will allow them. And sometimes they get penalized for it, and sometimes they don’t. It’s part of the nature of the game that you play until the referee tells you you can’t. So you have that attitude, which I think is pretty consistent across the board. Some sports are a little more black and white than others because you don’t have judgment calls being made by referees. The ball is in or it’s out.

But the sports where there are some discretionary calls certainly invoke that approach. I can’t tell you about cycling because I don’t know all the detailed rules, but I can imagine there will be some where there is a bit of an … attempt. If you’ve got that prevailing approach then it’s going to flow over into what people do with putting stuff into their bodies.

VN: Then WADA finds itself in an unenviable policing position, seeing as how some of this seems inevitable?
DH: I wouldn’t say unenviable. That’s our mandate. So we’ve got no choice. But you do get into a situation where there are decisions that need to be made which require careful consideration. They’re not spontaneous reactions.

VN: WADA seems like it serves a very important role — that of impartial observer, when national federations may take favorable approaches to some athletes. Does it seem that way?
DH: I think one of the reasons we were established was to make sure we did have a body that was independent. And get away from that sort of approach [of nationalism]. We’ve been operating in that fashion for some, and as a result you will get emotional submissions. But they’re able to be dealt with in a dispassionate fashion because the information that is forwarded will be matched with all the science that’s current. And the medical information, which is current. And a decision will be taken. And that’s generally without the emotion prevailing.

VN: Are you happy with the overall state of the organization?
DH: I think in general you always want to improve and you always want to be smarter, better, more reasonable, and so on. What you’ve got to do, and this is the trouble with the world at the moment, you’ve got to do with what you’ve got. And everybody wants you to do a lot more with what you’ve got. So there’s that sort of pressure that you feel, and I think the way in which the outcome that the Johannesburg conference reached, shows that we did very well. But you cannot sit back and rest on your laurels. You’ve got to say, “OK, what do we do next?”

VN: Do you feel like sport is cleaner now than, say, five years ago?
DH: I think sport in general knows — everybody knows the anti-doping rules. Everybody knows the processes. Everybody accepts them. And so we’re in a much better position than we were five years ago because there had to be a lot of education, a lot of training. Now we’re in a much better position. I don’t think that athletes — elite athletes — can say, “Oh, I didn’t know this,” or “I didn’t know the rules.” And that’s an advance. We’ve got to remember how fast we got there, and I think we are there now. And we can only build on that.