The CHill Zone of T&F: Conway's View From the Finish Line

Time to Talk Doping

Jan 27th, 2012
12:56 pm PDT

At least that’s the impression I’m getting as I scan the news, as doping has been a very prominent topic this winter. Of course it is an Olympic year, and while on one hand there is the anticipation of watching the world’s best athletes produce stunning performances, the specter of  “drugs” and just how “natural” those performances may be seems to be on everyone’s mind, as evidenced by the plethora of articles there are on the topic. Everything from gushing over how “modern” the Olympic lab is; to early warnings to drug cheats; botched tests; a plea for athletes and others to blow the whistle on known cheats; to an admission from Jacques Rogge that there will be cheaters in London – because we can’t stop them!

And therein lies my frustration with track and field and this topic. There is lots of talk within the sport about anti doping programs – as if talking will convince people that something is being done. There is the occasional bust, that is held up as proof that the sport is indeed working on cleaning things up. But ultimately we come to the admission that who/what we “caught” probably could have been detected in an advanced high school chemistry class (ok maybe community college) and that we really have no hope of catching the “real” cheaters because they are more “sophisticated” than we are!

I’m not sure that the cheaters are more sophisticated, but they do seem to have more “incentive” to succeed than the sport has to stop them! Why do I say that? Simple – and I’ve said this for years – the marketing strategy of the sport (selling super athletes and super performances) is more in line with athletes achieving the pinnacle of success than it is in preventing them from doing so by artificial means. Sort of like the lack of incentive that government employees have in getting individuals off welfare – if you get them off welfare, you and your department are no longer necessary, so there seems to be more incentive to maintain the status quo and keep your job! Just as, if we don’t have athletes breaking records the sport seems to feel it has nothing to talk about or market.

Now a discussion on how to better market the sport is for another post – it begins with what’s called competition and focuses on matchups and getting your top athletes to compete  more regularly. Today however, I’m going to try and focus on the doping problem and how to become as sophisticated as the cheaters. Because the whole “performance” angle is a double edged sword – in case the sport hasn’t noticed. It’s great when records are being broken; but when cheating athletes are caught it takes a LONG time to get over the “black eye”! Just mention Ben Johnson – a quarter century later – and see what folk say about track and field. Or the names Marion Jones, Victor Conte, or BALCO. That whole risk/reward thing just doesn’t seem worth it when high level athletes are caught!

That’s why the sport needs to do two things: 1) shift it’s marketing focus, and 2) improve it’s anti doping program. Fortunately, while the cheaters seem to be more sophisticated, it’s NOT because the means to a better anti doping system doesn’t exist. The problem is that the sport insists upon maintaining an antiquated system; and pretending that as it moves forward it is  using a better system, though it is doing so in name only. Let me explain.

First of all the system that is being used is the old “Urinalysis” system. Now urinalysis is great when you KNOW what you’re looking for – that’s why it worked well in the early days of drug testing, we knew what drugs were being used and what to look for! That’s because in the early days of “doping” the drugs of choice were primarily anabolic steroids – Clenbuterol, Dianabol, Nadrolone, among others. At that point the “testers” knew what they were looking for and those substances were easily detected using urinalysis.

Of course the cheaters didn’t take too kindly to getting caught, and with the take down of Ben Johnson in Seoul (‘88) cheaters realized that they needed to up their game. First by attempting to use better “masking agents” to hide the use of anabolic steroids. Over time, however, the testers learned to look for those substances too – and they could also be detected using urinalysis. So the cheaters were only slightly ahead, and the testing system was adequate.

Ah, but then we entered the New Millennium, and we found out that the cheaters had learned how to make their own drugs – substances that were unknown to the testers! Chemists learned how to take known substances and alter them chemically enough to create new substances that worked but were different enough NOT to show up on testers results – because being “unknown” they were not being looked for – and “undetectable” drugs were born! Finally the cheaters had a clear advantage over the tests. Or did they?

I ask that question because prior to the first Olympics of the New Millennium, testers developed a new system of testing utilizing a different substance from the body – blood. Now the ability to use blood testing to detect drugs has always been there. As with urinalysis, medical personnel can detect substances within the body by taking samples of blood – and as with urinalysis, it works quite well when you KNOW what you’re looking for. As a matter of fact it’s a bit better than urinalysis in terms of accuracy. Like urinalysis, however, blood testing does not detect designer/undetectable drugs – at least not by simply drawing blood and testing it. That’s why I get anxious when I see individuals touted as having had their “blood tested” as proof of non drug use – no different than Marion Jones saying she’s never failed a drug test.

There is one way in which blood testing can be superior to urinalysis however, that is when it is used in conjunction with a bio-passport – also known as blood passport. Simply put this is a sample, or samples, of an individuals blood that are taken to establish the athletes “base” blood levels. The “passport” is then used to compare against tests taken at other times to determine if there are changes and/or “irregularities” within the individuals own blood samples. Such changes/irregularities can be indicative of an introduction of foreign substances into the system – thus identifying “unknown” or previously “undetectable” substances!

The system of utilizing bio-passports was available as far back as the Sydney Olympics of 2000. As a matter of fact, Robin Parisotto, who helped develop the anti doping program for the Sydney Games, wrote about it in his book “Blood Sports – The inside dope on drugs in sport”. A book that I feel is a must read for those interested in doping in sport. That said, here we are three Olympic cycles and a dozen years later and this sport is still relying on a testing method that has proven to be easily beatable!

We’ve heard that we’re “moving” in that direction. We even get teased with “blood was taken at this meet or that meet”. But until we get to a full system where the requisite number of blood samples have been taken per athlete to establish true “base” data for bio-passports, then all of the above article links will continue to result in “the cheaters are beating the testers”! That’s why now is the time to talk doping, because the off season is a prime time to test athletes!  Because the true benefits of doping are realized during the off season and/or early season when athletes are training hardest to establish their training bases for the year. The athlete that gets caught during competitions is either careless with what is going into his/her body and/or using substances that are known quantities. Not since the days of Ben Johnson have athletes stepped into competition “fully loaded”.

No in order to catch the true cheats, it’s the “out of competition” testing that must be ramped up, and a true blood testing/bio-passport system put into place. Until then, it’s dopers vs. testers with the dopers holding a clear advantage. And we’ll continue to watch extraordinary achievement wondering in the back of our minds, “is he or isn’t he?”. So instead of people like Jacques Rogue lamenting that “there will be dopers” in London and we won’t catch them, he and others in positions of power within the sport should be lobbying hard for implementation of blood testing/bio-passports. They should be looking to raise the additional resources necessary to carry the program out. And those who are truly against doping and pushing for lifetime bans of athletes that do so, should in their next breath be advocating for a system that would provide the means to catch cheats, even when they are utilizing currently non detectable drugs.

Anything less than that is a lot of noise signifying nothing. It’s time for this sport to stop talking about losing the war, and do what it needs to do to win the war. That’s what the cheaters are doing. They’re winning because they do what’s necessary to beat the system. And like someone that’s had his home broken into one too many times, it’s time for track and field to invest in the latest technology that will both catch and prevent further attacks! Now is the time. If not now, when?

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