x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Qatar lab can be a bastion in war on drug cheats

In the second part of our doping series, Paul Radley finds the Anti-Doping Lab in Doha is ready to join Wada's never-ending fight against drugs in the world of sport.

The Anti-Doping Lab Qatar in Doha is still a work in progress. Courtesy ADLQ
The Anti-Doping Lab Qatar in Doha is still a work in progress. Courtesy ADLQ

Lance Armstrong was fond of boasting that he had never failed a dope test - despite being the most tested athlete in the world. It is the regular refrain of a sportsman under suspicion. Not, "I have never doped" but rather, "I have never failed a test".

In Armstrong's case it always begged the question, what precisely were the testers doing for all those years?

If he was as "hot" as often as many of his former teammates and the US Anti-Doping Authority have said he was - and as Armstrong now admits - how did the people tasked with policing it not prove it?

Is the World Anti-Doping Authority (Wada), for the most part, just a toothless tiger? For all those who believe in fair and clean sport, it must be hoped not. But what is clear is the doping police need all the help they can get.

Here in the Middle East, the first anti-doping laboratory is being prepared for action. The Anti-Doping Lab Qatar (ADLQ) is in the process of proving itself worthy of becoming a fully accredited Wada centre.

Once it is on line, the laboratory in Doha plans to process the samples taken during doping control testing from all GCC countries.

They currently have confirmation that all Qatari tests will come to them, and are working to secure agreements for the other GCC nations here to provide the same.

The building is already a monument of hope. Constructed in the Aspire Zone of Doha, the facility has an unimpaired view of the Khalifa Stadium, the strikingly modern ground which will play host to matches at the 2022 World Cup.

The high-specification analysis equipment inside is complemented by a gleaming facade of steel and glass on the outside, with the laboratory's motto writ large on the stadium side of the building: "Be pure, stay pure".

Which is all well and good, but will it succeed?

The hunters

Accepted wisdom gloomily suggests that those tasked with pursuing the cheats will never catch up. The leading scientist at ADLQ acknowledges as much.

"We believe we are very close to the dopers, but can we catch them? No. This can never stop," said Dr Costas Georgakopoulos, the Doping Analysis Laboratory Director at ADLQ.

"Human physiology offers so many different pathways for increasing performance. New pathways will be discovered in the future, so we can never say we will stop doping. This can never stop."

Georgakopoulos, a former discus thrower who competed for Greece at the 1984 Olympics, was recruited from the Wada-accredited laboratory in Athens to head up the Doha initiative.

He has been in place for 15 months and realises the facility has far to go before it gets official accreditation, let alone starts pulling its weight in the war on doping.

Yet he remains sanguine about the prospects of those, like his team, who are at the front line of the arms race against doping.

"When you are chasing someone who is cheating, they are running ahead," he said.

"You cannot get ahead of someone you are hunting, because they will just go in another direction. That is definitely what happens" in the battle against doping. But I don't believe that the distance is that large. The progress of analytical technology has reached the point where the athletes are obliged to shift to using substances that are not at the level of potency of the synthetic drugs."

By which he means the enhancement of the as-yet undetectable drugs make to performance are not as overwhelming as they once were.

The money drain

The amount of money spent on sport by Arabian Gulf states in recent years has been monumental. And, for the most part, it has brought unqualified success.

For example, Qatar will host the 2022 World Cup. Abu Dhabi has become a popular stop on the Formula One circuit, and also had a sizeable stake in making a previously underachieving English football club Premier League champions.

Meanwhile, both Qatar and Dubai are readying future bids for Olympic Games.

Budgets for all of the above make the reported annual sum of around US$26 million (Dh94.5m) on which Wada survives seem like small change. How the anti-doping authority would love to have those sort of finances available to them.

Well, thanks to the inauguration of the ADLQ, there is hope.

Qatar's rulers are underwriting the costs of the laboratory - which is almost certain to be a loss-making business - "almost indefinitely", according to the general manager.

"Not many places would take on the burden of having an anti-doping lab because it is a losing business; financially it is not cost-effective," said Dr Muhammad Al Sayrafi, the general manager of ADLQ.

"Even when it comes to results, it is a hassle. Dare you report a positive? Dare you not? You are attacked from both sides - from the people that claim the athlete is doping and from the athlete who claims he is clean.

"Very few people would take that challenge, but Qatar decided to take this step."

It is hoped some revenue will be recouped via two floors of multipurpose research facilities on the floors above the anti-doping laboratories.

The ADLQ will also be paid for the doping samples it processes, but that is not a guaranteed earner, for a variety of reasons.

Transparency

Picture the scene. A UAE (or Saudi Arabian, or Kuwaiti; it does not matter which) athlete wins a gold medal, narrowly beating a Qatari into second.

The mandatory samples for the medallists go off for testing. The winner returns a positive test and the Qatari is bumped up to gold. Complaints seem inevitable.

Local rivalry can be so fierce in this region that the hypothetical scenario is feasible. Conceivably, the complainants might be so upset that they boycott the laboratory, and demand their samples go elsewhere instead. Which means a loss of revenue, as well as a stain on credibility.

"Human nature obviously will think, 'Oh, it is a Qatari lab; they will give our athlete a positive and their athlete a negative'," Al Sayrafi said.

"Also, from the other perspective, local Qataris would always think we should never give a positive result to one of our athletes. But we are going to be so transparent, nobody will be able to doubt anything we ever do."

Al Sayrafi says the system already in place in laboratories across the world should be considered watertight enough.

However, the ADLQ plans to employ a new system where even the number of the sample they are sent becomes encrypted for the duration of the analysis process.

"We receive the samples with a number, not a name," the general manager said.

"Still, there is a worry that there will be a leak and somebody will call you to tell you the number belongs to this player.

"So we are developing a technique here where the number is masked by the computer, another number is generated internally, and that number will not be unmasked until you release that result. If that is not enough, there is always the B sample. Any player can request that to be analysed. They can request it can be sent to any lab in the world. So it is well secured."

Operational

The laboratory in Doha has made a preliminary application to Wada to be considered for accreditation. There are currently 33 accredited laboratories worldwide.

They hope to receive a visit by a delegation from the anti-doping authority in May, with a view to processing blind samples later this year.

By the end of 2014 it is anticipated the decision will be made on whether full accreditation will be granted.

"We have the latest technology and a great team to get this going," said Mishael Al Ansari, the marketing director of ADLQ. "It is truly an exciting experience."

According to Al Sayrafi, the inauguration of the laboratory is a necessity to enhance credibility of sport in the region.

"In any competition now, testing for doping is a major part," he said. "The whole region does not have a laboratory. Since Qatar is becoming the sports capital of this area, they were very keen on establishing a good sports structure.

"Having an anti-doping lab is like closing that circle, or completing the formula. There is a need to have a laboratory here."

pradley@thenational.ae