Professor David Cowan is Britain's leading drugs scientist
Oversaw London 2012 testing as director of UK's Drug Control Center
Was denied full access to Sochi laboratory
Discusses evolution of doping and anti-doping measures
In the midst of an “unprecedented attack on the integrity of sport,” this isn’t an easy time for the men in white coats in their ongoing fight to beat the doping cheats.
Britain’s leading drugs scientist Professor David Cowan has witnessed the evolution of doping first-hand, but with the latest news that Russia concealed positive drug tests of hundreds of athletes at the Sochi Winter Games, just what can one man do in the face of a state-sponsored doping program?
From co-founding the UK’s only WADA-accredited laboratory in 1978 to overseeing the testing at London 2012, Cowan has always remained undeterred. The professor has dedicated his working life to maintaining the integrity of Olympic sport – and, with the Rio Olympics on the horizon, shows no sign of letting the dopers getting the better of him.
Back in the 1970s he remembers it took the best part of a day to analyze 10 samples. Now his team can analyze 10 samples in an hour, “finding not just the needle in the haystack, but the fraction of the needle in the haystack.”
Except the cheats always seem one step ahead of the testers when the medals are awarded, given as retrospective analysis of Olympic samples now indicate, at least 23 athletes from London 2012 have since tested positive for banned substances.
Not forgetting the 31 athletes from the Beijing Games that may have flaunted justice when original samples were tested.
“Ah, there is a need to test rapidly,” admits Cowan. “The reason there is a need is preferably one would disqualify the athlete before they get to the end of the competition.”
A lab typically oversees 5,000-10,000 samples per year, but the big issue with the Olympic Games is the huge scale-up it necessitates.
“We’re all used to dealing with the average number of samples, [but] when it comes to the Olympics, you’re doing around 10 times the usual sample load in a relatively short period of time,” said Cowan.
Break in the chain
He is also honest enough to admit that there are still causes for concern in the cat and mouse game with the dopers.
“Part of the problem that I’ve been concerned with is whether the athletes have been properly sampled,” he says. “We can only get correct results if we’re sent reliable samples.”
Cowan worked with the international Olympic Committee at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, where the recent report of the WADA Independent Commission flagged widespread doping abuse and manipulations.
“I did have some access to the laboratory – but not always as much access as I would have liked,” he recalls. “It’s easy to be wise after the event but I am a scientist, not a policeman. I can’t go over with investigative powers hunting for problems.”
Despite the problems facing the IOC and WADA, Cowan remains optimistic.
“I think the scrutiny is excellent,” he says. “All too often in the past things may have been swept under the carpet. Now the media attention means we’re getting far more publicity, and that ensures we are better able to deter drug misuse. All this focus on problems is the start to getting solutions.”
He also rubbishes the notion that prospective dopers are always one step head.
“We can develop tests ahead of the athletes having any chance of getting access to those compounds,” he says, pointing out that his team had established a relationship with a number of pharmaceutical companies including GlaxoSmithKline ahead of London 2012.
The laboratories are not only prepared for some of the pipeline drugs that have the potential to be misused in the future, but can also act upon suspicions from the past.
“Because samples are now stored for up to 10 years, we can go back retrospectively and look at those samples using new methodologies,” says Cowan. “If you’re taking a drug, we may not catch you today, but in 10 years time we may catch you then.”
Given the fallout from the McLaren report – and the IOC’s decision not to impose a blanket ban on Russian athletes – will the global TV audience be forced to collectively suspend its disbelief during the Olympics?
“There’s always some variability in sport,” muses Cowan. “Was the referee right? We’ll always have that – it’s one of the issues with sport.
“What we have to do is make the drug side of things so negligible it doesn’t matter.”
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Pointing to the way the Tour de France cleaned up its act as evidence that sport can change, Cowan assumes a tone of defiance.
“It’s bad when sport appears to be tainted because of drugs, and that’s what we’re fighting against.”