The World Anti-Doping Agency’s director general, David Howman, talks to NZ Lawyer about the pursuit of fair and drug-free sport, and his former career as a lawyer and barrister in New Zealand.
“Some people would describe me as a bit of a sports nut,” says David Howman of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). It’s hard to think of a better role for the sports-loving lawyer from New Zealand. Since August 2003 Howman has been the director general of WADA, and before that its chief operating officer and special counsel.
“It’s a unique organisation that combines public authorities, the governments of the world, with private enterprise, the sporting movement of the world. It’s the only body of that sort internationally where you get that combination,” Howman says of WADA, which provides a unifying body for the global fight against doping in sport.
“We have written and revised several times a code of rules which is actually in place in every country in the world and in every sport in the world… and our task is to monitor those rules.”
The scale of the task confronting the Agency is immense. The challenges are twofold: tackling organised criminal interest in sport and the associated problems like bribery and corruption, and keeping pace with advances in science that athletes may be able to use to their advantage.
“Because sport now has a lot of money, people want to take shortcuts to achieve financial success, and that makes it a real battle for us,” Howman says.
“We’re encountering, of course, the fact that many athletes are very, very well paid – probably some have bigger incomes than our total budget – and they use some of their incomes to handsomely pay scientists and doctors and so forth to help them cheat,” he explains.
“The ever-increasing pharmaceutical barrage of drugs that are intended to help the health of our nations can be misused by those who want to cheat in sport. We have to keep an eye on that, and it’s pretty difficult because there are hundreds of new drugs that come out, almost on a monthly basis.”
Howman says New Zealand fares relatively well when it comes to tackling cheating in sport. “I think
New Zealand and Australia regard themselves as running pretty good anti-doping programs and
generally feel that the athletes in these two countries are those with pretty high values, and I would say to the majority that would be correct,” he says.
“There is, of course, the odd bad apple, and both countries have seen those in the last few years. They are the exception, hopefully, rather than the rule… but generally speaking in a small country if
you do something wrong you’re going to be found out, because word of mouth is quite effective, and that, I think, assists the system in New Zealand.”
Howman has spent most of his career working at the intersection of sport and the law. Working with Brandon Brookfield in the 1980s, he represented a number of sporting personalities, including New Zealand cricket captains, All Blacks and Olympians. In the early 1990s when he was a partner at Simpson Grierson, Howman was appointed the first commissioner for citing for New Zealand Rugby.
When he left private practice for the bar in 1995, Howman was appointed Hillary Commissioner and a director of the Sports Foundation, and later the chair of the New Zealand Sports Drug Agency, a role that led him to represent New Zealand at the First World Conference on Doping in Sport in 1999. WADA was born of that conference, and Howman has worked with the Agency ever since, initially as New Zealand’s representative on the board, and later as chair of the legal committee.
Despite the challenges of leading a global organisation and the scale of the problem that WADA is tasked with addressing, for Howman the role is an incredibly satisfying one, and simply coming to work each day is rewarding in itself.
“Every day is different. It’s quite a unique job.”