Fourteen years ago Olympic committees worldwide were saddled with integrity issues similar to what Thoroughbred racing faces today.
Doping among elite athletes was tarnishing the Olympic Games' image, chasing away TV viewership, and hurting sponsorship revenues. Critics, not unfairly, started using labels like the "Chemical Games" or "HGH Games," according to Travis Tygart, chief executive officer of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and the keynote speaker at the annual Jockey Club Round Table Conference Aug. 12. The Thoroughbred racing industry faces the same public perception problem from the use of both legal therapeutic medications and illegal drugs.
"You had powerful entities that were in denial; that wanted to point to every other problem to justify why fans were walking away," Tygart said about the sanctioning organizations for various sports.
Then the 1998 Balco steroid scandal erupted in baseball and put the issue of sports and drugs on every front page.
"We had a perfect storm of bad rules, lack of uniformity, confusion for the sports fans, rights that were being violated, then had a scandal attached," Tygart said. "It not only eroded the integrity but ultimately the bottom line."
Out of the chaos came the World Anti-Doping Agency, an effort that brought sports and governments together internationally and created uniform testing standards, lab accreditation, penalties for violations, and due process for anyone with a drug positive.
Tygart said WADA's mission is about protecting rights—the rights of the victims, the rights of sport, the rights of society, and the right to healthy and safe competition.
"These are what ultimately lead to our sport having integrity and value or not," he said.
While athlete education about using prohibited substances is important, Tygart said it is not enough. Regulators must conduct stringent, unannounced testing.
"When an athlete decides to cheat, then the (win-at-all-cost) culture has overtaken the rules. They are not victims," he said. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency regularly conducts out-of-competition testing and has access to the cell phones, home addresses, training venues, and even vacation schedules for about 3,000 (U.S.) athletes.
"We show up at their houses, we show up at their training centers to take blood and urine," Tygart said. "Some say it is over-the-top and intrusive, but this is what the athletes have said they want. They want the right to compete by the rules."
Rigorous testing also needs to be backed up by research and non-analytical investigation—people who monitor training regimens and collect intelligence.
"If you stay stagnant, the cheaters will get ahead," Tygart said, adding that the U.S Anti-Doping Agency has committed about $2.5 million to research, which has been provided through the not-for-profit called Partnership for Clean Competition. "It is cutting-edge technology. We are trying to develop tests using real-time information from the field."
Ed Martin, president of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, said he appreciated Tygart's presentation because one of the biggest pieces of the regulatory puzzle that Thoroughbred racing is missing is adequate funding for research.
"We would love to see a mechanism to generate resources," Martin said. "Even if you get to uniform rules, you still have the need for research and the investigatory resources. You have to have the boots on the ground."
Martin noted that RCI membership dues have not been raised in about 20 years.