Liam Morgan ©ITG

The International Testing Agency (ITA) was billed as a "major player in the global fight against anti-doping" when it became fully operational in June of last year.

Since then, the role of the new umbrella drugs-testing body has been somewhat peripheral.

The ITA, to use a footballing analogy, is like a player who is still trying to break into the first team after a prolonged period as a substitute. When the chance does arrive, it seems they cannot quite grab the attention for long enough.

For the ITA, the recent World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Symposium in Lausanne provided the organisation with the opportunity to do just that.

The annual gathering of the great and the good of anti-doping gave the ITA and its director general Benjamin Cohen an opening to spread the message of the organisation, pitch its ideas and, in some ways, remind those in attendance of its very existence.

In fairness to the ITA, it has only been operational for around nine months and is still jostling for position in a congested environment.

But we are just a little over 18 months away from the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, where the ITA hopes to play a considerable role in the anti-doping operation, and its progress so far warrants further scrutiny.

ITA director general Benjamin Cohen participated on a panel at the recent WADA symposium ©WADA
ITA director general Benjamin Cohen participated on a panel at the recent WADA symposium ©WADA

Currently, according to Cohen, the ITA has 40 international partners, largely comprised of International Federations as well as major event organisers. Cohen told me at the symposium that the ITA was also in talks with signing cooperation agreements with around 20 National Anti-Doping Organisations (NADOs), many of whom remain reluctant to partner with the newly-established body.

At least a couple of those International Federations have questioned the prices charged by the ITA, with some believing they are being forced to fork out more for the same service they were receiving under the previous model of the Doping Free Sport Unit.

Cohen, however, claims it is worth it. "We have built, are still building and will continue to build a true centre of anti-doping expertise," he said.

"It is expensive, yes, but we are trying to reduce the costs and it will provide added value.

"All of the people that are working for the ITA are true anti-doping experts. This is all we do.

"The real added value is that we are offering them expertise but we are also offering solutions. The idea is that the IF (International Federation) can then focus on promoting its sport and organising its events and we take care of anti-doping.

"We talked about some Federations who always have to answer questions on whether they have done enough, whether they have the right people, and whether they work in a transparent manner, for example, and they can almost use the ITA as a shield.

"We are working on elements like artificial intelligence and research centres, and it is very different from what it was before for a number of the IFs. That is the key."

The ITA presented its mission and plan at the IOC Session in Buenos Aires last year ©ITA
The ITA presented its mission and plan at the IOC Session in Buenos Aires last year ©ITA

The ITA has also faced criticism over its independence - the extent of which eventually prompted a name change from the Independent Testing Authority - given the strong sporting influence on its board as three of the five members are direct representatives of the Olympic Movement.

These questions are not exactly helped by the fact that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) essentially forced International Federations such as those governing biathlon and weightlifting to sign up to the ITA in the middle of their respective crises, which partially dispels the independence claim and also prompts some to harbour resentment towards the drugs-testing body.

Other world governing bodies to have signed partnerships with the ITA are unwilling to give up their entire anti-doping operation. Their preference to retain control over certain elements, be it education or therapeutics use exemptions - TUEs - suggests they are not yet fully confident in its work.

"Obviously we are trying to push them to delegate their full programme, which would be better and more efficient," Cohen said.

"Overall, it would bring more independence, but it is not easy to convince them."

While it is fair to say International Federations would not need convincing if the model being presented was perfect, it is equally fair to highlight how some of the same Federations are being deliberately difficult for the ITA, perhaps looking for ways to back out of an agreement they did not want to enter in the first place.

The perception of the ITA as an IOC-led initiative, suggestions which the body’s leadership deny, is also not helping its cause, while it seems there are those, particularly among the NADO community, who want to see it fail.

The IBU are among the International Federations to have signed up to the ITA ©IBU
The IBU are among the International Federations to have signed up to the ITA ©IBU

Success for any organisation against this backdrop would be tough but, done properly, the ITA appears a sensible and practical concept, particularly for the smaller International Federations who might not have enough money to run effective anti-doping programmes.

In theory, the ITA should be able to remove the clear conflict of interest in anti-doping, where International Federations test their own athletes and where NADOs test competitors from their own countries.

There have been too many examples of International Federations who have opted for image protection over rooting out cheating in their sport, an element which the ITA could help address.

Cohen also said the ITA is looking at partnering with law enforcement in a similar way to WADA’s intelligence and investigations department to tackle another troubling element - the trafficking and distribution of performance-enhancing drugs.

During his speaking slot on a panel discussion at the symposium, Cohen revealed the ITA would soon open talks with the National Gendarmerie, one of two national police forces in France, to cooperate in this area in the build-up to the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Paris.

The ITA may also be called upon to assist International Federations in their prosecution of Russian athletes implicated in the country’s infamous and well-documented state-sponsored doping scheme, the biggest challenge for upcoming sporting organisations and anti-doping.

The ITA has claimed it is capable of assisting International Federations in their attempt to build cases against Russian athletes named in the McLaren Report and which arose from the Moscow Laboratory ©Getty Images
The ITA has claimed it is capable of assisting International Federations in their attempt to build cases against Russian athletes named in the McLaren Report and which arose from the Moscow Laboratory ©Getty Images

"We are happy to support IFs with which we don’t have an agreement at the moment but who may require specific assistance to deal with some positives that came out of this analysis," Cohen said.

"It is going to be a big piece of work so if they need our assistance we will be there to help them.

"Our legal department is composed of lawyers who are doing results management all day every day, that is very different to what they are used to.

"When I was at FIBA (International Basketball Federation), I was dealing with anti-doping, commercial contracts, disciplinary matters, eligibility, a bunch of things. They just do results management and yes, we will have the expertise to help them with that.

"An added value of that is, because we can deal with a number of federations, we will have an overview of the different cases.

"We might be able to see the differences between the different cases and bring forward the best ones first. We can also try to deal in an harmonised manner with how we prosecute the cases."

Playing a role in the Russian cases will not do the ITA's attempt to cement itself in the world of anti-doping any harm but it remains to be seen if the body can overcome the obstacles which stand in its way of becoming the major player it hopes to be.