Doping control 2009 and beyond
Well, it's been a week since the last posting, and a week since a promise to tackle the mind over matter issue in more detail. Unfortunately, my own mind was out of it this past week, and I'm citing writer's block and lack of inspiration as reasons for the week-long silence!
And since that furnace has not yet ignited, I thought I'd do a very brief post inspired by some unrelated events over the last few days. They all concern cycling, in some form.
The primary stimulus for my thinking on doping is NOT Lance Armstrong's return to riding in Australia (though that certainly doesn't distract me from it), but rather the privilege I had last week of spending some time with the journalist David Walsh.
Walsh, for those who don't know, is the Chief Sports Writer with the Sunday Times, and one of the foremost journalists covering the Tour de France. He has written two books: LA Confidential: The Secrets of Lance Armstrong (in French only, with Pierre Ballester, and From Lance to Landis: Inside the American Doping Controversy at the Tour de France.
Both books have, predictably, been highly controversial, with various lawsuits and threats to prevent publication (the reason the first one was published in French only). I don't read French, but we did a review on the second book way back in 2007, and meeting with Walsh inspired a second reading of that book, which led to these musings on doping (and much more thinking and work, but that will be covered in the future).
A view on doping
First off, an interesting article on the state of doping control was published about a month ago in the International Sports Medicine Journal. It was authored by three Danish researchers, all of whom are quite influential on the world anti-doping stage. For example, the third of the three, Rasmus Damsgard, is currently the anti-doping Project Manager for Astana, for which one Lance Armstrong has recently made a comeback during the Tour of Australia.
You can read the article here - it's the Editor's selection, which I gather means that anyone can view the full article. If you battle, just drop us your email address in the comments section and I'll gladly send it to you.
To summarize, the article makes for a quite a nice introduction to doping control, because the author's cover the basics of doping control, including why out-of-competition testing is so important, how athletes are monitored throughout the year, how samples should be handled and tested, and the value of integrating the testing programmes of all the various bodies now doing the anti-doping bit (and there are plenty).
A couple of things jump out at me:
Anti-doping within teams
First, it's interesting that on the second page of the article (pg 156 of the journal), the authors discuss the "biological passport system", where riders' blood and urine values are tracked over the course of many months to develop an individual profile for each rider. The paper states that "Specific results showing the variation in the numbers of tests per rider and the timing of these tests have not yet been published, but it is anticipated to do this in the very near future".
I can't help feeling that this is the most crucial piece of this puzzle and the one that should have been in place from the very beginning. Towards the end of last year, I actually wrote a piece where I said that doping control should be made "open-source" (like Linux or Wikipedia) so that it is fully transparent. If this does not happen, then these team-led anti-doping programmes could become a farce, because the team still controls the flow of information.
In fact, I'd go so far as to say that unless the process is laid bare and made 100% transparent, the team anti-doping programmes are actually in danger of being destructive, because what teams are doing is "employing" experts like Prof Damsgard to manage their anti-doping programmes, but then controlling the flow of information generated as a result. This aspect of anti-doping control, then, becomes ornamental, a facade behind which teams can shelter and find some favour with authorities.
So the question is this: What happens if Prof Damsgard or any other scientist employed within a team structure discovers that athletes are doping? Does he report this to management, to WADA, to a national anti-doping programme, or does he remain silent? Because if the answer is the latter, then the teams have effectively neutralised doping control from within by removing power from experts, having such experts is actually a step back for the sport, not forward.
I'd be curious to know the answer to that question...
Example of the biological passport
Secondly, there's an interesting table in the paper showing the blood and urine values of a rider over a 7-month period in 2008. I've copied that table below (click to enlarge), and highlighted the interesting values.
The rider is implicated as having "suspicious values" in July 2008, because the reticulocyte (immature red blood cells) count is abnormally low, and also much lower than values measured only one month before. A reduced reticulocyte level suggests that the athlete has previously used EPO
Also, the BAP % (far right column), which is a measure taken from a urine test, is also suggestive of EPO use - anything above 80% is an adverse analytical finding.Note also the relatively large increases in hemoglobin and hematocrit that occurred in June. These are not by themselves a problem, but they do contribute more to the evidence that this athlete has used EPO during May or June.
So now, the same question is asked: This is a great example of how the passports should work, and what they look like. But, if this was a result collected by team's internal doping control programmes, what is the next step of action taken? Was this athlete investigated further? Do the anti-doping 'personnel' have the mandate to pursue, or do they simply observe?
To me, there is still too much secrecy. Having written that, I then think that perhaps I'm ignorant of the internal process because I'm an outsider. Perhaps the people involved in the teams know all the answers. Then I realised that this is precisely the point - who needs to be convinced that cycling is cleaning up its act? The outsiders, who include not only spectators, but sponsors, other cyclists, and the media.
And while doping control may be growing, and cyclists are now faced with the most intensive testing regimes of any sport. But all that comes to nought if the general trust in the sport cannot be won back, and for that, such secrecy cannot be sustained.
On the whole, anti-doping almost has a similar feel to the "medical programmes" that were instituted by the teams in the mid-1990's. At the time, doping was widespread (as it still is, sadly), but often not through team-run programmes. However, it became very clear that riders would dope, whether or not the team provided the "programme". As a result, many teams began to formalize doping programmes (which were called medical programmes) not to dope better, but to do so more safely. It was a case of acknowledging that it was going to happen, and at least a responsible team could control it better, winning more races and doing so more effectively (that is, without getting caught or killing the cyclist).
The internalization of doping control threatens the same, though it would have a different outcome - it could, in theory, facilitate even greater control of the flow of information. It has the potential to create so many conflicts of interest and potential clashes between different bodies that unless managed, the web of secrecy will get even heavier, and the code of silence (omerta) will simply be translated into a higher, more sophisticated language.
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Saturday, January 24, 2009
Doping control 2009 and beyond