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Saturday, May 24, 2008

How a sprinter takes drugs

The method behind the doping: Victor Conte's sensational letter spills the beans on drug use by sprinters

We interrupt our series on Fatigue (which is progressing rather more slowly than I'd like - my apologies, but work has been heavy of late!), to bring you a news-story from last week.

It concerns the ongoing saga of Dwain Chambers, the British sprinter who made news here about 10 weeks ago when he returned to the sport following his two-year ban after failing a drugs test for THG, the designer steroid at the centre of the now infamous BALCO case. Chambers caused a massive headache for the authorities by qualifying for the British World Indoor Team (where he went on to claim silver), and is currently making a push for inclusion in the British Olympic setup. Presently, the British Olympic Committee issue immediate life-time bans for drug offenders, and Chambers is doing his best to get past that small obstacle!

As part of this case, he's roped in none other than Victor Conte, the man behind THG and BALCO. His story was brilliantly told by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams in their book "Game of Shadows" - well worth a read, if you can get hold of it.

So it was just over a week ago, last Friday, that Dwain Chambers met the British Olympic authorities in an attempt to clear his name, fight against drugs cheats. Part of the plan was to reveal everything, blow the lid right off doping, and inform the authorities just how athletes were getting away with drug use.

Enter Exhibit A, a letter written by Victor Conte, which explains the process, the drugs, the secrecy, the methods behind the cheating for Dwain Chambers. We've taken this letter from the BBC site and pasted it below, in dark grey text, in its full form. Well worth a read, and highly informative. Of course, there will always be questions about the source, since Conte is a man who undoubetdly enjoys the "attention" this kind of story provides. Nevertheless, amazing inside information.

Before you read, three things to take note of from a Science of Sports point of view:

  • Seven prohibited substances, ranging from THG (called "The Clear") all the way down to a thyroid hormone, with pretty much everything in between
  • The athletes are extremely adept at dodging the system for long enough to get away with drug use for those substances which can be tested for. Of the seven, two have no tests, with others having rather sketchy tests. Conte's letter gives examples of how the athletes get away with it, in what he calls "ducking and diving".
  • He reveals some interesting statistics that implicate a rather unusual (and certainly inferior, if he is to be believed) testing pattern, with fewest tests during the off-season when the athletes are competing. Of course, logistically, it's easier to test athletes in-competition, but if Conte is truthful (and I suspect in this part, he is), then the athletes are of course doing their doping work out of season, and so one might expect the testing numbers to reflect that.
The letter is below:

Dear Dwain,

Per your request, this letter is to confirm I am willing to assist you in providing UK Sport and others with information that will help them to improve the effectiveness of their anti-doping programs.

The specific details regarding how you were able to circumvent the British and IAAF anti-doping tests for an extended period of time are provided below.

Your performance enhancing drug program included the following seven prohibited substances: THG, testosterone/epitestosterone cream, EPO (Procrit), HGH (Serostim), insulin (Humalog), modafinil (Provigil) and liothryonine, which is a synthetic form of the T3 thyroid hormone (Cytomel).

THG is a previously undetectable designer steroid nicknamed "the clear." It was primarily used in the off season and was taken two days per week, typically on Mondays and Wednesdays. Generally, these were the two most intense weight-training days of the week. The purpose was to accelerate healing and tissue repair. Thirty units (IU) of the liquid was place under the tongue during the morning time-frame. THG was used in cycles of "three weeks on and one week off."

Testosterone/epitestosterone cream was also primarily used during the off season. It was rubbed into the skin on the front of the forearm two days per week, typically Tuesdays and Thursdays. The dosage was ½ gram which contained 50mg of testosterone and 2.5mg of epitestosterone (20 to 1 ratio). The purpose was to offset the suppression of endogenous testosterone caused by the use of the THG and to accelerate recovery. The testosterone/ epitestosterone cream was also used in cycles of three weeks on and one week off.

EPO was used three days per week during the "corrective phase", which is the first two weeks of a cycle. Typically, it was on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. It was only used once per week during the "maintenance phase" thereafter, typically this was every Wednesday. The dosage was 4,000 IU per injection. The purpose was to increase the red blood cell count and enhance oxygen uptake and utilization. This substance provides a big advantage to sprinters because it enables them to do more track repetitions and obtain a much deeper training load during the off season. EPO becomes undetectable about 72 hours after subcutaneous injection (stomach) and only 24 hours after intravenous injection.

HGH was used three nights per week, typically on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Each injection would contain 4.5 units of growth hormone. Once again, this substance was used primarily during the off season to help with recovery from very strenuous weight training sessions.

Insulin was used after strenuous weight training sessions during the off season. Three units of Humalog (fast-acting insulin) were injected immediately after the workout sessions together with a powdered drink that contained 30 grams of dextrose, 30 grams of whey protein isolates and 3 grams of creatine. The purpose was to quickly replenish glycogen, resynthesize ATP and promote protein synthesis and muscle growth. Insulin acts as a "shuttle system" in the transport of glucose and branch chain amino acids. There is no test available for insulin at this time.

Modafinil was used as a "wakefulness promoting" agent before competitions. The purpose was to decrease fatigue and enhance mental alertness and reaction time. A 200mg tablet was consumed one hour before competition.

Liothryonine was used help accelerate the basic metabolic rate before competitions. The purpose was to reduce sluggishness and increase quickness. Two 25mg tablets were taken one hour before competition. There is no test available for liothryonine at this time.

In general terms, explosive strength athletes, such as sprinters, use anabolic steroids, growth hormone, insulin and EPO during the off season. They use these drugs in conjunction with an intense weight training program, which helps to develop a strength base that will serve them throughout the competitive season. Speed work is done just prior to the start of the competitive season.

It is important to understand it is not really necessary for athletes to have access to designer anabolic steroids such as THG. They can simply use fast-acting testosterone (oral as well as creams and gels) and still easily avoid the testers. For example, oral testosterone will clear the system in less than a week and testosterone creams and gels will clear even faster.

Many drug-tested athletes use what I call the "duck and dodge" technique. Several journalists in the UK have recently referred to it as the "duck and dive" technique. This is basically how it works.

First, the athlete repeatedly calls their own cell phone until the message capacity is full. This way the athlete can claim to the testers that they didn't get a message when they finally decide to make themselves available. Secondly, they provide incorrect information on their whereabouts form. They say they are going to one place and then go to another. Thereafter, they start using testosterone, growth hormone and other drugs for a short cycle of two to three weeks.
After the athlete discontinues using the drugs for a few days and they know that they will test clean, they become available and resume training at their regular facility.

Most athletes are tested approximately two times each year on a random out-of -competition basis. If a tester shows up and the athlete is not where they are supposed to be, then the athlete will receive a "missed test". This is the equivalent to receiving "strike one" when up to bat in a baseball game. The current anti-doping rules allow an athlete to have two missed tests in any given eighteen-month period without a penalty or consequence. So, the disadvantage for an athlete having a missed test is that they have one strike against them. The advantage of that missed test is the athlete has now received the benefit of a cycle of steroids. Long story short, an athlete can continue to duck and dive until they have two missed tests, which basically means that they can continue to use drugs until that time.

In summary, it's my opinion that more than fifty percent of the drug tests performed each year should be during the off season or the fourth quarter. This is when the track athletes are duckin' and divin' and using anabolic steroids and other drugs. Let me provide some rather startling information for your consideration. If you check the testing statistics on the USADA website, you will find that the number of out-of-competition drug tests performed during each quarter of 2007 are as follows: in the first quarter there were 1208, second quarter 1295, third quarter 1141 and in the fourth quarter there were only 642.

In late 2003 I advised USADA about the importance of random testing during the fourth quarter of the year. They did initially seem to follow my advice because they increased the number of fourth-quarter tests in 2004, 2005 and 2006.

However, they failed to continue this practice in 2007. Why would USADA decide to perform only 15% of their annual out-of-competition tests during the fourth quarter? Let's not forget that this is the off season before the upcoming summer Olympic Games. This is equivalent to a fisherman knowing that the fish are ready to bite and then consciously deciding that it is time to reel in his line and hook, lean his fishing pole up against a tree and take a nap.

On several occasions, I have provided detailed information to both USADA and WADA in an attempt to help them establish more effective testing policies and procedures.
I certainly have more information that I would like the opportunity to provide to you and UK Sport, but I will leave that for another time.

Hopefully, this information will be helpful and I am available to assist you further upon request.

Yours sincerely,
Victor Conte

There you have it, straight from the mouth of the "conductor" of the doping symphony. Note also Conte's reference to "more information" that he is leaving for "another time"!

This is by no means the only sensational drugs story doing the rounds at the moment. There is also the Trevor Graham case, which threatens to be even bigger, and maybe more damaging to the sport - so far, it's . We'll bring you some insight into that particular case next week, so join us then!

And also, we'll gradually chip away at Fatigue!



Anonymous said...

Well well, so they do take drugs! Sorry for my irony but it is more than obvious that the current anti-doping testing polices are nothing but a farce.

The following is not mine I read it somewhere: How about having all professional athletes tested on a regular basis (let's say once a month)? I understand that the logistics will be very difficult, but dodging will be impossible. I would like to read your thoughts on this proposal.


The Sports Scientists said...

Hi George, and thanks for visiting us here at The Science of Sport.

Testing athletes every month (or even more frequently) will likely lead to an increase in positive tests for a short time period until the athletes and their doctors figure out a way around it.

Recently Michael Shermer wrote this article for Scientific American. It is a fresh approach to this problem. In short, he applies John Nash's game theory to doping in sport.

Currently the rewards for doping are greater than the consequences for not doping. Therefore athletes dope, and what must change is that the consequences for doping must outweigh staying clean.

Check the full article for all the details, it is a really great read.

Thanks again for commenting!

Kind Regards,

Anonymous said...

I think far more interesting is Contes implication that during an upcoming Olympic year, the ISADA testers are more reluctant to test and catch the nations top athletes on drugs...implicitly supporting drug taking.

The Sports Scientists said...

Hi Bob,

You have made a great point, and in fact the model we apply to understand this situation includes the governments and sporting authorities turning blind eyes to the doping.

If they really wanted to stamp it out, governments have the resources to do so. Yet the world over doping continues and countries (governments and sports federations) do little or nothing.

Furthermore, there are allegations that the IAAF covered up positive tests prior to 1983 World Champs in Helsinki. That year was the first time a mass spectrometer was used. It was new technology at the time, and the athletes did not know that this new device would be used to test. Apparently many positives were found, and it was so widespread that the IAAF decided it would be disastrous to release the results.

There was a great book written about this by a medical doctor who I think was the Olympic team doctor in the early 1980s. Unfortunately I cannot recall his name or the book right now, however.

But the bottom line is that the administrators at the top are often just as complicit as the athletes themselves. They feel like they are protecting the sport, but of course in the long term they only inflict more damage by not being more transparent and stringent.

Thanks again for the comment!

Kind Regards,