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Having the Lower Hand - Administrative investigate national anti-doping agencies

Is doping part of sports? Photo: Fotolia/thanksforbuying.
Photo :
Is doping part of sports? Photo: Fotolia/thanksforbuying.

Sports supplements may be the “gateway”. When things get really bad, anabolic drugs and downers, blood boosting, or even gene doping can follow. In almost all disciplines, athletes are using banned substances and methods to increase their chances of success. The rates are particularly high in competitive sports. But the greed for fame and money comes at a price: Extreme cases of medical complications have been reported – but this has hardly been a deterrent. In many cases, national anti-doping agencies are powerless; there is little they can do to counter this development. Administrative scientists at the University of Potsdam are researching why this is so and to what extent agencies’ effectiveness depends on their organizational structure and the overall circumstances.

A team led by Senior Professor Werner Jann thoroughly examined the organization of the national anti-doping agencies of Germany, Great Britain, Norway, the Netherlands, and Austria. That these five countries were chosen was serendipitous: This “coalition of the willing” formed when some of these agencies wanted to review and improve their own structures – and through personal contact among some of their representatives.

The agencies face similar challenges – and use different prevention strategies 

The project was set up as a comparative qualitative case study. The researchers collected important information from 15 guideline-based interviews with senior agency staff members. “No other methods were considered,” explains Dr. Markus Seyfried, a member of the working group. “Performance comparisons based on figures alone would have distorted the picture, since the philosophies and conditions of the agencies differ so much. The phenomenon is well known from other organizational reviews. Not every aspect can be “MacGuyvered” and expressed in figures that can be compared.

The study focused on five key factors: resources, regulatory mechanisms, organizational structures, management, and environment. The results show that the agencies have a number of problems in common that influence their work. For instance, there is much financial uncertainty due to a lack of long-term budgetary commitment. Temporary contracts result in high staff turnover. Managing test results that differ so much presents another challenge. In some cases, this may not even be their responsibility but rather that of the very associations charged with sanctioning athletes who fail drug tests. For the experts, this is an absurd situation. “It’s like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse,” says Seyfried.

“We very much hope that our results will help set this straight. The national anti-doping organizations (NADOs) need more skills and clear structures.” Their inadequate staffing levels constrain them, making it almost impossible to impact mass sports, where the institutions also see an increased tendency towards doping. Painkillers and performance enhancing drugs, in particular, are on the rise. “In this regard, the national organizations can hardly intervene systematically,” Seyfried knows. They are, therefore, attempting to curb the trend through a variety of projects.

The limited resources also affect the everyday work of the organizations: Urine tests are cheaper – and, thus, more common – than blood tests. As a result, certain substances being used by athletes in some disciplines are less likely to be discovered. It’s as simple as that: The type of test used in the respective discipline significantly influences the number of athletes who test positive. And this is a very delicate issue, not only in the eyes of the Potsdam researchers. “According to the NADOs’ annual reports, only a very small proportion of the tests are positive,” Seyfried says. His interviews with agency representatives made it clear to him that different tests – both procedurally and with regard to the disciplines chosen – would probably yield higher “hit rates”.

Of course, the researchers also looked at inter-agency differences. For instance, the Netherlands and Great Britain apply two completely different prevention strategies. The Dutch approach is based on rescuing athletes from “bad influences”. As part of this “denial culture”, athletes are embraced, figuratively speaking. Athletes are given a lot of information about doping and its consequences, and much effort goes into working with the sports associations and strengthening the relationship between coaches, parents, and athletes. This approach is all about caution. “It was quite impressive for me to see how this agency stands up for its athletes,” Seyfried remembers. In Britain, the situation is completely different; there, prevention through deterrence is emphasized. Athletes found guilty of doping are “pilloried” –  their names are published online and elsewhere. It is hard to tell which approach works better. Experts know that developing guidelines for the “right” approach would be futile. What works in one country may not necessarily work in another. 

The black sheep of sports are always one step ahead of the testers

Those who work for a NADO do so “out of conviction,” Seyfried stresses. “We have the impression that there is no 9-to-5 mentality.” The teams include athletes found guilty of doping in the past, many of whom were recruited because of their intimacy with the subject – and they are usually more committed to their job. But they cannot solve the problem either: The black sheep of sports are always one step ahead of the testers. It takes a lot of time and money to develop detection methods for ever-more substances and tricks. And by the time mechanisms are in place to combat them, the scene has already thought up new ways to deceive the testers. It is like the arcade game Whack-a-Mole. And it’s the honest athletes who suffer the most. They are disadvantaged in competitions and are one day faced with the question of whether they, too, should use banned substances to keep up with the competition. It’s a vicious cycle.

Nevertheless, the team around Werner Jann at the University of Potsdam sees good reason to be optimistic. “Anti-doping agencies are using their funding in a meaningful ways,” Seyfried summarizes. “They are very skilled, knowing that they are only able to reach athletes through health education and targeted information.” Even though NADOs have a tough job, there are structural elements that may account for the variation in their effectiveness. These include more or less flat hierarchies and the extent to which large networks and informal contacts are used, for instance, to whistleblowers.

Werner Jann and his colleagues have invited representatives from the agencies to a workshop next spring to discuss their research findings. The hope is that they will be able to validate the results and potentially give concrete recommendations. The team has also been drawing up new plans: “It would be good to have a doping index – similar to the Transparency International’s corruption index. We hope our findings can contribute to developing this,” Seyfried says. A project extension has been applied for at the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and could provide a good basis for developing this index and other initiatives.

The National Anti Doping Agency of Germany (NADA) is a foundation under civil law. Critics claim that it is not independent, since – in contrast to other countries – it is not funded by the state alone but also by the federal government, sports organizations, and businesses. 
In cases of suspected doping, the agency is not permitted to carry out investigations and is unlikely to receive information from the police. Since a new code went into effect in 2015, it has been responsible for testing all in-competition athletes within the German Olympic Sports Federation. In 2015 alone, NADA carried out 12,425 doping tests: 4,590 in-competition and 7,835 during training. Since 2011, the foundation has also been responsible for monitoring drug administration to racehorses.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) – headquartered in Montreal – is the umbrella organization of all national anti-doping organizations. It implements anti-doping measures in sports worldwide. All of its activities are based on the WADA Code (revised in 2015) and the current list of prohibited substances.
According to WADA rules, drug violations face a minimum four-year ban.

The Researchers

Prof. Dr. Werner Jann studied political sciences, mathematics, and economics in Berlin and Edinburgh, Scotland. In 1982, he completed his Ph.D. at the German University of Administrative Sciences in Speyer. Between 1993 and 2015, Werner Jann was Professor for Political Sciences, Administration and Organization at the University of Potsdam, where he has been a Senior Professor since November 2015. His work focuses, among other things, on modernization of the public sector, governmental agencies, ministerial administrations, and political control of administration. 

Dr. Markus Seyfried studied political sciences at the University of Potsdam, where he earned his doctorate at the Faculty of Economic and Social Sciences in 2010. He is a research assistant at the Senior Professorship Political Sciences, Administration and Organization. His research interests include statistical data analysis, comparative administrative science, financial control, financing of public service broadcasting, and university research.

The Project

Organizational structures and performance measurement of National Anti-Doping Organizations – an international comparison
Oversight: Prof. Dr. Werner Jann
Duration: 2013-2016
Funding: World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)

Text: Petra Görlich 
Translation: Monika Wilke
Published by: Daniela Großmann
Contact us: onlineredaktionuni-potsdamde   


Read this and other articles on research at the University of Potsdam in our research magazine Portal Wissen