Over to You: Nicole Sapstead

Keeping Sport Clean

From FIFA to Maria Sharapova, it seems every week brings new stories of doping, matchfixing or corruption in sport. In April, the organisation responsible for tackling this issue in the UK itself came under fire for its handling of doping allegations at the highest levels of elite sport, as reported by The Sunday Times.

In the week before the article was published, Susanne Kelliher talked to Nicole Sapstead, Chief Executive of UK Anti-Doping (UKAD), about its challenging and complex remit.

Set up in 2009, against the backdrop of preparations for the London 2012 Olympics, UKAD is the independent organisation charged with protecting clean sport and clean athletes.

It's a big job, as Nicole Sapstead explains: "Our role is about much more than testing – of the ten violations identified in the World Anti-Doping Code, testing addresses just three.

"Increasingly, we focus on intelligence and investigation. That means gathering and sharing information with law enforcement and other agencies around the world to help stop the people and organisations aiding and abetting doping in sport.

"If we can get someone for possession, supply or trafficking, then we can start to deal with the entourage that is encouraging athletes to dope in the first place."

Nicole Sapstead

Still, given recent media coverage, it's easy to understand perceptions that doping is more prevalent than ever. The challenges are significant – from poor governance of sporting bodies, as seen at FIFA, to sophisticated doping networks with the resources to create designer drugs that evade detection.

Add to this the difficulty in tracking down wrong-doing among independent doctors not governed by sporting bodies – and therefore outside of UKAD's jurisdiction, as was the case with The Sunday Times story – and the mountain seems pretty steep.

Nicole acknowledges that the scale of the problem is hard to quantify.

"Is it getting bigger? It's hard to say. Organisations like UKAD are getting better and better at what they do, though clearly there are limits to their powers. Analytical and investigation techniques are improving too. And there are harsher sanctions than ever before – so more risk and more for doping athletes to lose."

The consequences of getting caught can be far reaching. It's not just about being excluded from sport; making the wrong choice can jeopardise jobs, sponsorship deals, friendships and even marriages. So why take the risk?

The consequences of getting caught can be far reaching... So why take the risk?

"There is enormous pressure on athletes in some sports. Many are influenced by money. Some experience pressure from parents, coaches or supporters and feel compelled to excel at all costs. Others see doping as their best or only chance of success."

Getting caught can stop an athlete's career in its tracks. Is it ever possible to come back? Unless that person has received a lifetime ban from sport, UKAD's view is yes.

"People make poor decisions, sometimes in very exceptional circumstances. For that reason, we believe that everyone deserves a second chance," says Nicole.

"There will always be a taint. But I believe that, if athletes do something proactive and positive, it is possible to recover."

Nicole would like to see more athletes talking openly about their experience of doping. "Athletes themselves have an important role to play in educating others about the risks and consequences of making the wrong choice."

"There will always be a taint. But I believe that, if athletes do something proactive and positive, it is possible to recover."

Education is high on UKAD's agenda and core to the work it's doing to ensure athletes wearing the Team GB vest at the upcoming Olympics in Rio are clean.

UKAD's Major Games Education Programme is a comprehensive anti-doping programme specifically targeting athletes selected for Team GB and ParalympicsGB. It provides the tools and knowledge they need to make the right choices as they prepare for the Games.

Nicole is quick to stress that preparation for the Games is part of an ongoing process. "Our mandate is to protect clean sport year on year and at every level – not just ahead of major competitions."

Promoting the right values through education is fundamental – which means starting young. "The sooner we can instil the right kind of values in children, the greater their chances of making the right decisions as tomorrow's Olympic, Paralympic or Commonwealth hopefuls."

UKAD runs a range of programmes specifically designed to help schools, colleges and universities engender a positive moral code in young athletes.

So will sport ever be 100% clean?

So will sport ever be 100% clean? "The answer is no," says Nicole. "There will always be someone, somewhere, paying to hide things. It's incredibly difficult to police and regulate absolutely.

"But we need to think and behave as if it is possible and use every single resource invested in UKAD to redress the balance."

In spite of the challenges, UKAD is making progress. The organisation has been praised internationally for its fight against doping and has been a key player in helping to address systemic doping practices in Russia.

But success depends on a number of factors, most notably, for Nicole, the need for greater collaboration with, and investment from, sporting bodies themselves.

Anti-doping doesn't come cheap. Aside from investment in people, it requires investment in research: scientific research to stay ahead of designer drugs; and social research to help understand why athletes cheat.

Yet money spent on anti-doping is a fraction of the money invested in sport itself. Very few sporting bodies – other than the big, professional sports, like Rugby Union or Football – put their hands in their pockets to support it.

"Cheating is not just about doping or match fixing. It's something that affects the greater integrity of sport itself. We need all sporting bodies to get behind that, not just those perceived to be the richest."

In response to The Sunday Times article, the UKAD Board has launched an independent review. Nicole is open to any findings that will help UKAD increase its jurisdiction and impact.

"We are absolutely committed to uncovering and prosecuting those who cheat, and contravene, the spirit of sport. I welcome any recommendations that enable us to be as effective as possible in keeping sport clean."

Writer: Susanne Kelliher

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