Liam Morgan

Tucked away on an industrial estate in Kent is a company desperate to be given the opportunity to showcase its products in a crucial sector of the convoluted world of anti-doping.

Versapak Doping Control began life as a manufacturer of security envelopes for the financial services industry - it continues to do so today - before it started branching out into anti-doping in 1987, creating sample collection bottles for the inaugural Rugby World Cup.

The company, based in Erith, a stone's throw from the beating heart of capital London by train, gradually established a firm foothold in the market before it was overtaken by Swiss-based manufacturer Berlinger.

It did not take long for senior Versapak executives to address the Berlinger-sized elephant in the room during a media morning at its headquarters this week.

Such is the extent of the monopoly enjoyed by Berlinger, despite well-documented problems with its sealed bottles and the Russian doping scandal, that many involved in anti-doping believe it is the only company which makes them.

Versapak is hoping the launch of its new "tamper-evident" kit, produced entirely from its headquarters and the surrounding area, will change that perception.

The urine sample collection bottles consist of two lidded canisters in injection-moulded plastic, which house a separate jar, also made from plastic instead of the glass favoured by its main competitor.

Versapak is among the companies vying to claim part of Berlinger's share of the market ©Versapak
Versapak is among the companies vying to claim part of Berlinger's share of the market ©Versapak

Each features "tamper-evident” latches, which will break if attempts are made to access the sample. Unique barcodes are lasered into the plastic as an alternative to the traditional sticker label, which Versapak claim adds another layer of security.

Versapak’s kits also feature an embedded DNA marker "only verifiable by laboratory technicians".

These factors led to managing director Caroline Atkinson, a relative newcomer to the industry having joined the company in May, insisting it is "impossible to tamper with our kit without it being evident".

"Every industry expert we have asked has not been able to come up with a way of doing it," Atkinson added.

The same could not be said of Berlinger last year. In January 2018, German journalist Hajo Seppelt said they had been able to open sealed containers "without trace", before further issues which showed they cracked when frozen provoked the company to withdraw from the business in the "medium term" in March.

That decision was reversed in January of this year, prompting a collective sigh and furrowed brow at Versapak HQ, and an updated bottle was released onto the market by Berlinger following what it claimed was a "strong global demand" for its product.

Versapak claims its kit is completely tamper-evident ©Versapak
Versapak claims its kit is completely tamper-evident ©Versapak

Given Berlinger's previous travails and the insistence from Atkinson and others that Versapak's is the best available - being salespeople, they were always going to say that - a question comes to mind: If the English company's kit is so good, why are there not more organisations using it?

The answer, according to Versapak, is that the playing field when it comes to sample collection kits is far from a level one.

Atkinson argues that the company has not been afforded the same chance to promote its own products to its core clients - International Federations, National Anti-Doping Organisations and sample collection agencies - as Berlinger.

She feels the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) could help in this area by establishing a standalone international standard for the bottles, or by making clearer which products meet the current requirements, outlined in WADA's international standard for testing and investigations.

"I am not asking them to promote or endorse, because I completely understand that would be wrong," Atkinson told insidethegames.

"But they should be defining a standard - they define a code, so already that standard exists.

"I think enabling us to show everybody what we can do, and allowing a transparent test to be undertaken, is the way to go.

"In the Sochi crisis, they [Berlinger] were regarded a bit like a bank - they were too big to fail.

"There was almost an outcry of 'that can’t possibly happen and you need to continue supplying', which was very frustrating for us. Admittedly that was four or five years ago, and we are maybe in a better position now to promote our abilities with the launch of our new kit than we were back then.

"It is just important to make sure there is that visibility there."

Berlinger currently monopolises the sample collection market ©Getty Images
Berlinger currently monopolises the sample collection market ©Getty Images

In response, a WADA spokesperson told insidethegames it "does not have the resources or the mandate to fulfil a role of endorsing any specific product" and pointed out how it already has requirements under the international standard for testing and investigations.

The global anti-doping watchdog admitted, however, that it was "aware of concerns around the disproportionately strong position Berlinger held in this market in the past".

"Accordingly, WADA has been actively supporting alternative suppliers of sample collection equipment and, over the past 18 months, a number of alternative products have been developed by manufacturers, which have sought advice and feedback from WADA," WADA added in a statement.

Berlinger would no doubt counter with the fact that it has been a trusted partner of a host of NADOs, sporting organisations and others for several years and that there must be a reason why it has emerged as the dominant force in the market.

Versapak boasts a considerably smaller client list as a result. The bulk of its supply goes to NADOs in countries such as Poland and Thailand, while at the time of writing it only works with a handful of International Federations.

Among the attendees at the media morning, which allowed those of us with a vested interest in anti-doping to delve into a less-explored area of the industry, was Paralympic silver medallist Ali Jawad.

Not only did the former powerlifting world champion give an impassioned speech to the attendees, where he detailed why he feels so strongly about ridding doping cheats from sport, but the Briton also raised an interesting point.

Jawad feels athletes should be given the choice of "three or four" options of kit when they submit to doping control, which they are not currently afforded.

This, Jawad claims, could even prevent tampering as it would keep the testers guessing. Familiarity is suggested as a reason why Russia was, at the time, able to get away with tampering with bottles - the authorities knew the product inside and out, and therefore knew how they could be opened.

In theory, having athletes use different bottles would have made this task more difficult.

The doping scandal showed, however, the extent to which the country was willing to go to in order to achieve sporting success on the international stage. Put simply, Russia would have tried to tamper with the bottles irrespective of who made them.

Atkinson stopped short of claiming it would have been different had it been Versapak producing the sample collection bottles rather than Berlinger, but nevertheless sent a firm message to the anti-doping world: we are here and open for business.