New drug testing agency aims to restore trust in sport

Eric BERNAUDEAU
International Testing Agency director general Benjamin Cohen is eager to form partnerships with the biggest international sports federations, such as FIFA, and conduct testing at the 2022 World Cup

The new International Testing Agency will regain the "trust" of athletes and fans who lost faith in the fairness of sport after a series of doping scandals, the body's director-general told AFP.

The idea to create the ITA was conceived at the height of the Russian doping scandal that saw evidence emerge of egregious cheating orchestrated by Moscow during the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.

Under intense pressure, the International Olympic Committee insisted the sporting world needed a fully independent testing agency that could back-stop federations and national anti-doping labs, which had proven vulnerable to manipulation.

The ITA started operating in Lausanne just over a month ago and it is, managing-director Benjamin Cohen said, already providing services to 30 federations and would strive to build its portfolio -- including testing responsibility for the next World Cup, if FIFA agrees.

"We are coming out of a rather complicated period, since the Sochi Olympics," Cohen told AFP at the agency's headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland.

The "ITA will be there to regain the trust of the athletes and the fans if they have lost it," he said, adding that the body will work to "earn trust, respect and loyalty of our partners."

But the ITA's ability to attract partners was, at the outset, an open question.

- Gaining momentum -

Some federations indicated a desire to keep control of their own testing in collaboration with the World Anti-Doping Agency, which does not conduct tests but is tasked with ensuring that national labs comply with global doping protocols.

Cohen said partnerships with the boxing, judo and table tennis federations demonstrated the ITA is gathering momentum.

He also highlighted the decision by United World Wrestling, which governs amateur wrestling, this week to hand over its full anti-doping programme to the ITA.

But big fish like FIFA, athletics governing body IAAF and cycling federation UCI -- which manages a sport devastated by high-profile doping -- have not yet signed on.

"I haven't heard (FIFA, IAAF and UCI) saying they don't need the ITA," Cohen said.

But he noted that the battle against doping pre-dates the ITA and some federations remain confident in their internal systems.

"We have to respect that, but I believe that they will see by themselves that the ITA will be a trusted expert partner on which they can count," he added.

"I'm hoping, that in the short term or mid-term, we'll be able to work for UCI, athletics or FIFA."

He stressed that the ITA would be "delighted" to handle testing for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, as it would give football fans "the guarantee that there is a totally independent (anti-doping) programme" in place for the world's premier sports event.

The ITA will face its first major trial at the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires in October, before focus will immediately turn towards enforcing drug-free Games in Tokyo in 2020.

"If we can restore the confidence of athletes and sports fans by building an organisation that is independent and 100 percent committed to anti-doping, that would be a good thing," Cohen said.