The criminal underworld controls "a significant proportion" of world sport, including the distribution of doping substances and attempted bribery of drug-testing labs, a global anti-doping leader said.
World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) director general David Howman says that the integrity of sports is under threat due to the "increasing encroachment" of organised crime gangs involved in steroid trafficking, match-fixing, money-laundering and other corruption.
"They make more money from this than from trafficking in heroin," Howman said at the World Sports Law Report's anti-doping conference outside London.
"We get it in the anti-doping world," he added. "Doping control officers have been bribed or have been attempted to be bribed. There have been examples internationally of labs being subject to brown envelopes."
Covering up positives
Howman also raised the possibility of offering financial rewards to national anti-doping bodies to catch dopers, suggesting that some agencies are covering up positive tests to protect their own athletes. Some testers, he said, are also "too scared" to report positive cases for fear of legal challenges.
Howman said law-enforcement agencies, including Interpol, are aware of the widening involvement of mafia-style groups in doping and sports.
"My inside information has it that the underworld is now controlling a significant proportion of world sport," he said. "It need not be at this (elite) level. It can be at much lower levels for them to get the return they are seeking.
"It doesn't have to be Premier League, it can be fourth division."
Huge financial incentives
Howman said criminals are motivated by "huge" financial incentives and little chance of getting caught. The gangs procure raw doping materials from China, deliver them to "kitchen labs" across the world and then distribute them to those looking for performance-enhancing benefits.
"The criminal underworld is challenging the integrity of sport," Howman said. "It's the same people who distribute illegal substances."
Howman suggested an international body should be set up to deal with gangs using the betting industry, legal as well as illegal, to launder money and corrupt sports.
"It's the same jokers," he said. "It's not anybody new. If you are going to set up a body, it has to deal with all the issues, not just illegal betting."
On a separate issue, Howman said it was worth exploring the idea of offering financial incentives to members of national drug-testing bodies.
"Maybe we should put out a reward system - say $50,000 (about R350,000) for each cheater caught correctly and appropriately," he said. "Will that make a difference? I don't know. Maybe we have to think about these things."
Reluctance to catch dopers
Howman suggested cheaters are getting off because of a reluctance by national bodies to catch them.
"We all know there are athletes out there cheating who are not being caught". "Are we being too protective? Are we testing the right people at the right time? Do we have a nationalistic pride at national level to say, 'we better not touch the captain of the cricket team because he's very important for our nation and if he's taken out, we're in trouble?’” he said.
Howman said many positive cases are never reported, with some scientists afraid to pursue them for fear of law suits.
"There are a significant number of false negatives," Howman said. "We all talk about false positives. We get one or two every year. I'd say the false negatives are in the hundreds. There is a good deal of conservatism and a fear of the legal process."
Howman hailed last week's validation by the Court of Arbitration for Sport of cycling's "biological passport" program, which can sanction athletes based on evidence of doping in their blood profiles.
"Now other sports should join in," he said. "They don't have an excuse to stay out."
Howman welcomed plans by the International Olympic Committee and US Olympic Committee to go to CAS for a legal position on the IOC rule that bars athletes with a doping suspension of six months or more from competing in the next Olympics.
The rule would prevent American runner LaShawn Merritt from defending his 400m title at next year's London Olympics.
"A court needs to decide whether it's double jeopardy or not," Howman said. "We need to have certainty in these cases."
(Sapa, Stephan Wilson, March 2011)
Which are the big doping sports
Drug firms help WADA