By Gene Cherry
RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - Until national federations and governments put clean competition ahead of winning medals, sport faces a difficult task in its battle against doping, a longtime U.S. observer of athletics says.
The challenge is made even greater by sometimes complicated procedures for determining what is a positive dope test, finding the proper balance of science and the legal system and inadequate funding, author and writer James Ferstle told Reuters.
While praising the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and other organizations for being a countermeasure to those who cheat, "it's not all that much different than it was way back when" in the '60s and '70s when doping was rampant, Ferstle, who has been investigating and writing about doping for nearly three decades, said in a telephone interview from Minnesota.
"None of it is surprising," he said of allegations by German broadcaster ARD/WDR and British newspaper The Sunday Times of widespread doping in athletics.
Certain national sports federations, in a bid to keep the medals coming, are continuing to find loopholes in anti-doping rules and using delaying tactics to keep athletes eligible, Ferstle said.
"There are those who have been allowed to compete even though they should be provisionally suspended," he said. "There are loopholes in the different segments of the sports world where you can be banned by some groups and still compete in others."
Part of the problem is the adjudication process for an adverse finding on a drug test.
In most cases, suspicious cases must first be adjudicated by national federations -- the same federations that want to keep athletes eligible -- before independent organizations like WADA and national anti-doping organizations can attempt to overrule an incorrectly decided case, Ferstle said.
The only recourse in this situation is another time consuming case before the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
Globally, Ferstle said, there has been a realization these scandals are not going to stop. So officials must strengthen the testing process to where it is at least perceived that the odds of beating the system are not worth the risk.
"It does not happen overnight," he said. "While funding for WADA and other national anti-doping organizations has increased, it is still not adequate to deal with the problem."
Doping cases also are often complicated by the divisions between science and law. What may be accepted scientifically may not meet a legal challenge.
"Unless you have a precedent, cases that have met the challenge of getting through a legal battle, there is often a reluctance to prosecute a case where the science shows a doping violation but the law may not allow a sanction to be imposed for that offense," Ferstle said.
Anti-doping organizations in general do not want to spend their already stretched budgets on a case where the odds are not favorable that they can win.
The key to deterring the spread of drug use is changing the culture, Ferstle said.
"Don Catlin, one of the pioneers in sports drug testing told me back in the '70s that for each positive drug test, the athlete who was busted was not a triumph for the anti-doping movement, but rather a failure of the system," Ferstle said.
"The system had not convinced those who give in to the temptation that doping was not an attractive option."
Instead, he said, the athlete had decided the rewards were greater than the risks.
"The culture needs to favor the clean athletes rather than the win-at-all costs mentality that has the upper hand today," Ferstle said. "Unless we do change the culture, there will continue to be scandals."
(Reporting by Gene Cherry in Raleigh, North Carolina, editing by Pritha Sarkar)