Doping update: Two interesting stories, one positive, one negative
Two posts for you today (after a long absence, sorry!). This one concerns some doping news, and then directly below this post, you'll find a short summary of the Tour de France Alps stages, and a preview of today's big Alp d'Huez finish, which should shake the top of the leaderboard a little more. First, however, doping.
By "positive" and "negative", we mean "good" and "bad" as opposed to a Ricco-like positive test, incidentally (pardon the accidental pun)!
Ricco - thought he'd get away with it, but WADA was (for once), a step ahead
First up, it has been confirmed that Ricardo Ricco tested positive for a designer form of EPO (Micera, as we discussed in our last post). Nothing new there. However, what is quite amazing and was revealed this morning, is that the test that caught him was possible thanks to "collusion" between the testing authorities and the pharmaceutical company that produces Micera. It turns out that Roche Pharmaceuticals and WADA worked together to place a molecule in the drug that allowed testers to detect its presence.
In the words of John Fahey, WADA's President: "In the development of that particular substance close co-operation occurred between WADA and the pharmaceutical company Roche Pharmaceuticals so that there was a molecule placed in the substance well in advance that was always going to be able to be detected once a test was undertaken."
This is a very positive development, because for the first time, it suggests a proactive approach that is more integrated than what we've seen before from the authorities. One day, I'll discuss the "Wikinomics" approach to doping and what I believe will solve the problem, but let's just say that WADA needs to open its doors to external expertise if it wishes to remain in touch with the dopers. This positive test is a step in the right direction, maybe even a leap. Ricco did not believe that they could catch him, and so now all athletes in future should be warned that every once in a while, WADA will pre-empt their moves. Hopefully that will discourage doping...
All we need now is about 100 more similar tests, as the next story demonstrates.
China: Gene doping revealed in German TV documentary
On a more pessimistic note, a documentary that was aired in Germany showed how doctors in China offer gene-doping (the introduction of stem-cells) to a journalist posing as a swimming coach. The journalist approaches the doctor and requests stem-cell treatment for one of his "swimmers", and the doctor replies:
“Yes. We have no experience with sportspeople here, but the treatment is safe and we can help you.”
Asked how it would work, the doctor said: “It strengthens lung function and stem cells go into the bloodstream and reach the organs. It takes two weeks. I recommend four intravenous injections . . . 40 million stem cells or double that, the more the better. We also use human growth hormones, but you have to be careful because they are on the doping list.”
And the price? “Twenty-four thousand dollars,” the doctor said.
The documentary also reveals that doping products can be picked up for bargain discount prices in China - 100g of steroid hormones are sold for 100 Pounds, when the typical price in Europe is about 4500 Pounds per 100g.
Now, the knee-jerk reaction to this kind of information is to be hyper-critical of China, but it's probably prudent to point out that this same scenario is likely possible in any country, though of course the price would be different. China has been called the "world's doping pipeline", because it is able to make available ingredients so cheaply - that's nothing new, though. If your country is anything like South Africa, half your household goods were made in China. So economically, China can't be blamed for producing cheap drugs (though the impact of these drugs is a problem).
What is more disturbing and of concern is that in China, testing processes are likely to be far less transparent than anywhere else. Our first story today dealt with how WADA and Roche worked together to develop a test for a drug that was thought to be undetectable. This second story demonstrates just how much work they have left, because what happens in China is all too often insulated from the rest of the world. The relatively strict limits on foreign presence (and particularly "interference") means that if drugs are being made or distributed in China, which seems likely, no one will ever know.
Worrying times indeed...