Between 800 and 1,400 aspirant Olympians avoided getting caught for doping last year as a result of a huge drop in drug testing during the Covid-19 pandemic, exclusive analysis for The Mail on Sunday shows.
While it is unclear how many of those subsequently qualified for the Tokyo Olympics and will appear at the delayed 2020 Games that begin on Friday, it is certain the global health emergency has given a shot in the arm to drug cheats.
The shocking numbers are based on detailed models that consider not only how headline global drug testing plummeted from 306,000 tests in 2019 to 168,000 last year, but on precise and consistent patterns of adverse findings in specific sports over a number of years.
Perhaps the starkest illustration of how Covid gave a licence to cheat to athletes willing to compete corruptly came in April last year.
In a ‘typical’ April, around 25,000 drug tests are conducted around the world, with roughly one per cent of those positive, or 250 cheats exposed.
Between 800 and 1,400 aspirant Olympians avoided getting caught for doping during Covid
In April 2020, when 33 nations in Europe alone ceased all testing, and much of the rest of the planet followed suit, just 578 tests took place worldwide, with just a handful of dopers caught.
‘As the primary approach taken to detect doping in sport is through in and out-of-competition drug tests, doping may well have gone undetected during the pandemic,’ said Sue Backhouse, a professor of psychology and nutrition at Leeds Beckett University, where she leads the sporting integrity team.
‘A reduced threat of detection, combined with an Olympic year where medals are in sight, intensifies the risk of doping. Research conducted at Leeds Beckett University found that athletes appeared most willing to dope if they were to suffer an injury, a dip in performance, or think others are doping and getting away with it.’
Prof Backhouse pointed out that a lack of testing during the pandemic might adversely affect athletes who excel in Tokyo.
The coronavirus pandemic has seen a dramatic drop in doping tests taken by athletes
In April 2020, 578 tests took place worldwide, down from a normal 25,000 tests taken
‘Stunning performances will likely be met with scepticism because of the absence of doping control in the pandemic,’ she said.
The MoS’s figures for the dopers who got away are based on around 140,000 tests that ‘should’ have happened — and factored in how many would normally have been in Olympic sports. They also consider below-average positive rates for Olympic sports in normal times and a small degree of ‘weighting’ that predicts some potential cheats were more likely to cheat knowing they were less like to get caught as the testing dried up.
David Howman, the chairman of the Athletics Integrity Unit, told the Australian newspaper that the likelihood of catching potential cheats has partly been left to chance. ‘You are left with the thought that those who like to take those (cheating) shortcuts would have done so and you have to cross your fingers and hope that those who did are going to be caught,’ said Howman, the former head of the World Anti-Doping Agency.
The monumental drop in testing could result in unfair results at this summer’s Olympic Games
In late March last year in Jamaica, the local anti-doping agency JADCO initially suspended all drug testing for a week, with an indefinite suspension added from April to June and no return to regular levels before October.
A global poll of 685 elite track and field athletes around this time found 78 per cent of them were concerned cheats would prosper because of less testing but JADCO chairman Alexander Williams went public to say he knew of no Jamaicans who were concerned.
All drug tests were put on hold by Russia’s anti-doping body RUSADA on 27 March last year and then extended until the summer.
All testing in China was ‘temporarily’ suspended from February before a ‘phased reintroduction’ later in the spring. UKAD in Britain initially said testing would continue as normal but then operated at around six per cent of normal figures through the spring, with 124 tests in April, May and June 2020 combined against 2,017 in the same period in 2019.
Countries such as Russia, Jamaica and China halted doping tests for long spells during Covid
America’s anti-doping agency USADA also scaled back.
Figures working within the anti-doping community fear that ‘nations of concern’ have done little to change perceptions they are more lax than rivals on testing.
These countries include Kenya, Ethiopia, Belarus, Ukraine, Morocco, Nigeria, Bahrain, Jamaica, Russia and Brazil while certain sports, including swimming, have been ‘poor’ to respond to the recent challenges.
A full breakdown of 2020 testing by sport and nation and governing body will not be available until later this year — after the Games have been and gone.