The corona pandemic has paralyzed a lot of things in life, including the battle against doping in sports. It has made drug testing almost impossible. Is this an open invitation for would-be cheaters?
The worldwide coronavirus outbreak has not been lost on the doping laboratory at the German Sport University in Cologne.
"Our work has not yet reached a standstill. Of course, the number of doping-test samples coming in has dropped substantially, so our usual work has been scaled back", Professor Mario Thevis told DW. "We are taking advantage of this situation to further improve testing procedures"
Thevis, who heads up the laboratory at the Institute of Biochemistry, noted though, that in the medium term, there would be no alternative but to reduce the hours of some staff.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has said that operations at 11 of the other 26 accredited laboratories around the globe may have to be "temporarily suspended" due to the outbreak.
The battle against doping needs to take a back seat
Germany is one of several countries, including China, Russia and Canada where testing for performance-enhancing drugs has been suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic. In other countries, nobody knows how long more challenging conditions in which they test samples will remain.
While WADA has said it maintains its "vision of a world where all athletes can compete in a doping free sporting environment," it also conceded that "the protection of public health must take precedence."
Professor Fritz Sörgel, head of the Institute for Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Research in Nuremberg, shares this opinion.
"We are in an exceptional situation, one that we have never experienced before," the anti-doping expert told DW. "For every organization, it's primarily about survival, including in financial terms. The battle against doping will have to take a back seat now."
WADA boss Witold Banka continues to repeat his claim that the battle against doping cheats marches on unabated. Sörgel, though sees a danger of those who may be pre-dispositioned towards cheating taking advantage of the current situation.
"For athletes who are just below the best of the best, this is a chance to push themselves into that elite class using illegal means over a what will probably quite a long period of time," he said. "Competition-free periods have been used by dopers over and over again to raise themselves to a higher sporting level - partly in the hope that they will not be tested as often then."
The ideal opportunity for dopers?
Professor Thevis from the anti-doping laboratory in Cologne also says he can't rule out the possibility that some athletes taking this opportunity to try out new performance-enhancing substances or doping methods.
However, Germany's National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) wants no part of this discussion.
"The health of all persons involved in the doping-control system is the sole focus of our attention. Everything must take a back seat to this," NADA told DW in a written statement.
"We consider any discussion about the suspension of testing and any idea of placing all athletes under general suspicion to be wrong."
Dried Blood Spot Tests
NADA is working with the Cologne doping laboratory and Athleten Deutschland, an organization that represents the interests of German athletes on a plan to use so-called Dried Blood Spot Tests (DBST) in the battle against doping during the coronavirus crisis.
In these tests, the athlete draws a drop of blood from his or her own body and drops it on filter paper. After the drop has dried the athlete sends the sample to the designated laboratory in a sealed envelope. The athlete is observed via live video while he or she draws the blood.
"In the current situation, this method would have the advantage that samples could be obtained in a minimally invasive way and that the state of the test sample would reduce the risk of infection," Professor Thevis said.
'Psychological ups and downs'
However, while they have had good experiences with this kind of tests, they are also not a complete replacement for regular doping tests.
"For certain substances, the blood drop alone cannot cover the entire spectrum as is usually the case when using a combination of urine and complete blood tests," Professor Thevis explained.
It is also not clear how much easier it might be to try to manipulate a DBST compared to tests that include the physical presence of another person.
All those involved in the battle against doping welcome the fact that the Olympic Games in Tokyo have been postponed until 2021. Dagmar Freitag, chair of the standing committee on sports in Germany's Bundestag parliament, even went as far as to say it could present an opportunity.
"The training regiments will now have to be completely readjusted," the Bundestag member told DW. "This will open up completely new opportunities for an effective battle against doping. The experts in the national anti-doping agencies know exactly at what stage of the training cycles they need to test most often."
Professor Sörgel is less optimistic. He sees the fact that the Games were postponed by just one year as an example of bad planning, because the uncertainty about when regular training and competition will again be possible is causing "psychological ups and downs"
"This is an enormous burden and could lead to excessive use of legal substances such as nicotine in the form of chewing tobacco or even antidepressants," he said, also noting that in the current situation, some athletes might also turn to cannabis.
If athletes are not able to test their physical fitness in competition, the pharmacologist believes they will look for alternatives to maintain their competitive level.
"Doping substances can also be useful in this regard," he said.
Profiteers of the Olympic postponement
The postponement of the Olympics may also play into the hands of dozens of athletes already convicted of doping because all of those whose suspensions expire by July 23, 2012 will be eligible to compete in Tokyo – provided they have qualified in their disciplines.
"A ban is about the length of time, it is not dedicated to concrete sports events and if they happen or not," WADA boss Banka said in an interview with the internet platform insidethgames. "When you finish your punishment, you can compete. We cannot extend the punishment, from a legal point of view."
One of the potential beneficiaries is Hiromasa Fujimori. The Japanese swimmer, who narrowly missed out on a medal in the 200-meter individual medley at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, tested positive for the stimulant methyl ephedrine at the 2018 Short Track World Championships in Hangzhou, China. The 28-year-old denies having doped and has said that he believes contaminated rice balls he ate in Hangzhou may have been behind the positive test result.
In early March, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) rejected Fujimori's appeal against his two-year ban. The Japanese swimmer's dream of competing at an Olympic Games in front of his home fans seemed shattered. However, with the Olympics now postponed for a year, his dream has been revived, as his ban expires at the end of this year.
Quickly back at full capacity
Dagmar Freitag of the Bundestag's committee on sport is demanding that the battle against doping continue as vigilantly as ever, despite the postponement of the Tokyo games.
"For clean athletes, the issue remains at the top of the agenda," Freitag said. "They need the assurance that they can participate in a clean Games." NADA's statement outlines that they will resume testing "immediately, as and when the situation allows for it.
The doping laboratory in Cologne will follow suit. "It would require a bit of lead time," Professor Thevis said. "But in principle, the test procedures and processes are set up in such a way that we can quickly return to full capacity."
So perhaps, even during the coronavirus pandemic, would-be cheaters shouldn't feel too safe after all.