A Harley Street Doctor Casts Further Doubt on Sport

Dr Mark Bonar alleges he treated hundreds of top sports stars with performance-enhancing drugs.
Dr. Mark Bonar at the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service in Manchester, England, April 11. Bonar is at the center of allegations made against the conduct of the U.K. Anti-Doping Agency. Oli Scarff/AFP

Anti-doping agencies exist for a single purpose—to protect the right of clean athletes to enjoy fair competition against athletes who do not gain a competitive advantage from illegal substances and methods. They do so, at global and national level, by enforcing an agreed-upon code that identifies those substances and methods that are illegal, and then seeks to detect their use by testing and investigating.

This, in turn, requires that they have both the desire and the authority to do so. A will, followed by a way. Integrity, followed by authority.

Unfortunately, the outcome of a disheartening series of doping scandals is that athletes and observers of sport must be wondering whether either of these two requirements exists. No will, and no way.

Consider just the last four months. The focus was initially on a Russian state-run doping programme, and the entire sport of Track and Field, with its governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), complicit in covering up doping practices. China had a turn in the spotlight, and then we returned to Russia for allegations about swimming. Along the way major problems were noted in Kenya, Mexico and Spain. All three have been declared, or risk being declared, non-compliant with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) code, and Kenya, one of the Olympic Games' most prominent nations for their dominance of distance running events, may be on the verge of Olympic exclusion as a result. Russia has already been banned for its non-compliance with the WADA code.

That code, incidentally, might be called "The Way." It is the set of tools, or weapons, that empower anti-doping bodies to execute their mission. When that anti-doping body receives information revealing or hinting at doping in any form—a blood or urine test conducted in or out-of-competition, a confession or a whistleblower—it has the responsibility and must have the means to pursue that as far as is required to fulfil its mandate.

In the case of blood or urine tests, an anti-doping body first verifies with a second sample, and then initiates the legal proceedings required to sanction the athlete with a ban and removal of their results. The cheating athlete thus faces the full might of the law, while the clean athlete benefits because their results are upgraded, perhaps medals are won, and in rarer situations, prize money received retrospectively.

In the case of whistleblowers and confessions, the anti-doping authority has an obligation to investigate, to pursue every single claim made, and to do so with the utmost integrity. Its priority, its raison d'etre, must be the clean athlete. Ultimately, it seeks what is called an anti-doping rule violation (ADRV), which can lead to a sanction for an athlete without ever having to find a banned substance in the athlete's urine or blood.

This is the new world of anti-doping. Gone are the days of test and catch, because doping has become too sophisticated to rely on in-competition and out-of-competition tests. The former are too easy to avoid through planning and smart doping, while the later are too infrequent and, therefore, also easy to avoid.

And so instead, anti-doping efforts rely more than ever on old-fashioned investigations and whistleblowers, informants who are usually themselves dopers, but who have intimate knowledge of other athletes or doctors who are engaged in doping practises.

We've seen this many times—a vial of unidentified liquid is anonymously dropped off at a chemist's lab leading to the discovery of a new, undetectable drug; random police checks discover cars full of pharmaceutical products intended for cyclists; cyclists facing potential federal cases or incarceration discover integrity and truth, and give investigators information in exchange for reduced sanctions; brave whistleblowers tell their stories to journalists who build cases in the form of news stories, using undercover investigators to paint a picture of doping networks.

Most recently, it was an undercover operation, triggered by the approach of a whistleblower looking for a reduced sanction, that exposed Dr. Mark Bonar, a London-based self-described anti-ageing expert, who has, by his own telling, given illegal drugs to 150 athletes, including elite cyclists, footballers, a cricketer and a boxer.

The allegations have rocked U.K. anti-doping, but not because any names were released—The Sunday Times, which broke the story, says it has names, but will pass them on to relevant authorities rather than publish them at this stage.

Rather, the big revelation concerned the apparent inaction of U.K. Anti-Doping (UKAD), the national anti-doping agency. It reportedly received information on Bonar from the whistleblower two years ago, but after much frustration at perceived inaction, that whistleblower instead approached journalists, who then obtained footage of Bonar guiding an aspirant Olympic athlete towards banned substances including testosterone and EPO.

It is UKAD's apparent failure to act that is so damaging, and not only because it forces the realization that doping is the world's problem, and not that of eastern European and isolated African nations. Primarily, this is so damaging because it reiterates the doubt that authorities have either the will, or the way, to fulfil their mandate of keeping sport clean.

In the case of Bonar, upon receiving the information of a doctor readily prescribing and extensively prescribing drugs to elite athletes, UKAD absolutely had to investigate and act, even if only to refer the matter onward, in order to remain credible as a protector of athlete rights. They did not do this, and it has since emerged, first in a UKAD statement, that it had no power to investigate Dr. Bonar because he is not governed by a sport, and that its lack of jurisdiction over the case meant that the only recourse was to report him to the General Medical Council (GMC) for a malpractice investigation.

Later, Sir Craig Reedie, who is the president of WADA, defended UKAD, saying that after due process, they had no regulatory authority to go to the GMC either.

These are extraordinary truths. Or claims, depending on your level of cynicism. If believed, they mean that the highest anti-doping authority in the country can only investigate claims against doctors who are governed by sports. That is a tiny minority, and the corollary is that the vast majority of doctors, potential suppliers of illegal drugs, fall outside their jurisdiction.

This is partly understandable, because issues around medical confidentiality mean that an anti-doping agency cannot simply go nosing about in the business of a medical doctor's client files on the word of an informant. However, the complete inability to refer the matter onto a body that can investigate (according to Reedie), and eventually lead to the exposure of cheating athletes, is a major blow to the credibility of anti-doping efforts.

That's if you believe it—the GMC exists for the protection of the public, and as such, any member of the public can approach them about a doctor. UKAD, in possession of information about Bonar after its own investigation, could most certainly have done so, yet Reedie, from the summit of WADA, insists that it had no regulatory authority.

It is this kind of legal murkiness that erodes already fragile confidence in the authority of the system. It leaves many asking, quite justifiably, "If not you, then who?" If the highest anti-doping authority in the land cannot pursue a case, then who do we turn to to protect the clean athlete? Such inaction makes anti-doping efforts and agencies look like public relations agencies whose primary purpose is to create a veneer of action and clean sport, rather than to act effectively.

Instead, the media has been the champion of the clean athlete. It's astonishing, for instance, that after German investigative journalists uncovered the Russian doping scheme in 2015, it was another group of journalists who discovered whistleblowers in swimming. Not WADA, despite it being an open secret that the Russian problem was not limited to track and field. Rather, journalists and whistleblowers appear to be pulling a dishearteningly reluctant group of anti-doping authorities towards the unpalatable truth.

Remember Sebastian Coe, then campaigning for the presidency of the IAAF, when confronted by media allegations of doping within his sport? He called them a "declaration of war on my sport". A few months later, every allegation was borne out. His was an extreme case, but authorities in sport seem generally reluctant to embrace whistleblowers and allegations such as those printed earlier this month, when in fact they should be embracing them as the most effective way to root out doping.

It is true that allegations cannot be taken as truth, and in the case of Bonar, there is history and context that specifically cautions against blanket acceptance of his filmed claims as proof that he is correct when he says he "never met a clean athlete." He is, after all, facing a hearing for allegedly lying to a terminally ill patient, and much of what he advocates as medical treatment does not stand up to any kind of scientific scrutiny at all. There is a real possibility that he has exaggerated his credentials and inflated his numbers. He must be treated with caution.

However, that lack of ethics and dishonesty does not disqualify him from being believed, as many seem so eager to proclaim. If anything, his lack of credibility as a medical doctor makes him more credible as a doping doctor! After all, if you're an athlete who wishes to break some rules to get ahead, would you expect help from an honest, upstanding doctor, who always tells the truth?

And so in this context, the only reasonable approach should be to take his words and claims very seriously indeed. There are two possible outcomes. One is that he'll be proven to be lying, and UKAD will be at least partly exonerated if it can show that its investigation was conducted diligently and thoroughly, and that it also found that he had nothing to answer for (as it told the whistleblower).

On the other hand, if a proper investigation is conducted, and shows Bonar to be telling the truth, then some authority will have discovered that a) UKAD failed in its responsibility, either because it lacked the way, or more worryingly, the will, and b) the tip of the iceberg. That is, it would be foolish to assume that Bonar is the only doctor who is accessible to athletes. They can all prescribe growth hormone EPO and testosterone. While most will be honest, even a handful who are willing to prescribe drugs under the pretense of "medical need" means that potentially thousands of athletes in dozens of sports, have basically no barrier to doping other than money. That would understandably shake confidence even more.

Confidence is at an all-time low. Every story like the Bonar allegations creates more skepticism, and skepticism drives more questions. The answer to those questions is rarely encouraging, and as long as nations and sports have to police themselves while simultaneously promoting their virtues and positive records, skepticism will continue to rise while trust plummets.

Trust sunk to new depths thanks to the Bonar/UKAD allegations, because they exposed the apparent ineffectiveness of anti-doping as a result of having no "way" to vigorously investigate potentially serious allegations. Combined with the already widely-held perception that sports and anti-doping agencies lack the "will" as a consequence of the numerous conflicts of interests they face, the insurmountable problems facing the current anti-doping system become all too apparent.

The author is Professor of Exercise Physiology, Free State University, South Africa.

A Harley Street Doctor Casts Further Doubt on Sport | Sports