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Thursday, November 06, 2008

Doping in sport: how to go forward?

Agency for Cycling Ethics (ACE) goes under

With the marathon season over and the year coming to an end, only Fukuoka remains as a a big race to cover, and in the interim we will bring you some more series on varied topics, from cycling cadence to sports nutrition. In the mean time you can surf over to our new Facebook group and join if you have not already done so!

But today there is news from the anti-doping front. The Agency for Cycling Ethics, or ACE, has closed. Folded. Gone out of business, apparently due to financial problems. They were a company set up to take independent samples from athletes and report the results back to the coaches and teams. Their website has been shut down, so we do not know all the teams they were providing services for, but ACE had such big clients as Team Columbia, Garmin-Chipotle, and BMC racing, to name a few.

The problem: how to check your athletes?

Since organizations like WADA and national federations administer doping control, you might be asking why an independent agency like this is important for sport. To understand this you have to think back to the late 1990s and the Festina Scandal at the 1998 Tour de France. In that era the teams were able to successfully dodge doping allegations by pleading ignorance. Athletes were not even fired immediately like they are now, as the teams just deflected the onus back to the organizing bodies and let their guys keep competing. In addition there was never any real threat that sponsors would leave the sport because a few riders tested positive for something. Therefore it was not necessary for the teams to take any responsibility for their athletes.

Currently, however, things are different. Now when an athlete tests positive he/she is almost immediately released by the team, lest the sponsors pull their support. This happened to Barloworld at the tour this year, when Moises Duenas tested positive and was found with doping products. The team canned him right away, but Barloworld still threatened to pull its support and was rumored to have done so although it appears now they will stay on. So now the teams and coaches at least must be seen to be taking a much harder line and assuming some of the responsibility. This does not mean that they (the coaches) will be sanctioned in the same way the athletes are, and maybe that will be part of the solution, but for now the ramifications of having a positive athlete on your team are more far-reaching than even before.

So instead of letting WADA catch the cheats, some teams now have realized that being proactive might be better for the general "health" of their team. The idea is that you test your athletes regularly for banned substances and also to establish a bit of a physiological profile. Then, if you ever notice that their profile is changing in a way that might imply doping, you can better manage the situation by pulling him from competition. Or if you know they are doping, in theory you could terminate their contract. Now you have prevented an official positive test on your team, and even better it makes the team look squeaky clean as it gives the appearance that they are keeping a close eye on their athletes.

The need for independent agencies

Enter companies like ACE who will, for probably a not-so-small fee, sample and test your athletes on a regular basis and provide you with the data. On paper this is great as we assume the agency operates independently of any politics in the sport like the grand-standing that often occurs between the UCI and the IOC and the UCI and Tour de France organizers ASO. So there can be no accusations of witchhunts or bias like one athlete being tested a disproportionate number of times.

This was hailed as the way forward by teams like Garmin-Chipotle and Team Columbia and CSC-Saxobank. They bragged that they are watching their athletes and using agencies like ACE in the battle against doping. The problem however is that the teams still control the information, and while most of the time they will make those results available to the public and WADA and the UCI, they are not obligated to do so, and we can guarantee that eventually the circumstances will be right for a team to cover up results and withhold information or report false information.

Think about it. . .a cycling team has been testing their riders regularly and shows everyone is clean for the whole year leading up to the tour. They are contenders but also at the end of their sponsorship contract. Therefore performing on the big stage is imperative. Suddenly their team leader and yellow jersey hope has a blip on his profile that indicates the use of a banned substance only one week before the start of the race. We would all be naiive to think that the team directors and athletes will always operate in a truthful and transparent manner, as they have proven to us so far that they will not.

But who is policing whom?

So it is plausible that the team falsifies the data to make it appear that all is well. And who can do anything about it? Not the testing agency as they are independent and just run the tests. Not WADA or the UCI as the teams are not obligated to share those results and are not really breaking any rules if they provide false results. So the team goes forward and the doped athlete competes unbeknown to the rest of us.

These kinds of companies surely will play a role in the bigger picture of the fight against doping, but somehow their role must be formalized. The ultimate test of transparency would be for the teams to volunteer to send a copy of all results to WADA and the UCI for their own records, although some kind of agreement must be reached about if that sample is "legal" in terms of the UCI or WADA sanctioning the athlete or team. It is quite tricky because if the sample can be used to ban an athlete, then there is even more incentive to manipulate the system, this time the sampling process within the team, and then companies like ACE must be working together with WADA which in turn means they compromise some of their independence.

For now the teams will use these companies as a means to demonstrate their commitment to anti-doping practices, and it is not a bad thing that now the teams are playing a larger role. What is surprising is that not more teams are doing it. If I am the team director or coach, I want every assurance that no one is doping. Like it or not, a positive test will have implications for me as a member of that team, so the team must take full responsibility and at least be seen to be trying to prevent their athletes from doping. It must be costly, but that must be seen as an essential part of the budget of any professional sports team.

But if ACE went bust, then what does that say about the financial viability of the business? We can only hope that they folded due to mismanagement and not because this type of business is not viable. Maybe more details will filter out, and in the mean time teams like Garmin-Chipotle, who use their anti-doping stance as a centerpiece for their team, will need to find someone else who can provide these services. It is a complicated problem, to be sure, and even the suggestions made here may or not be good for anything, but I suspect that we are in the middle of a changing landscape in the fight against doping and that over the next few years things are going to continue to morph until all the involved parties (hopefully) arrive at the best solution.



Anonymous said...

So, now Frank Schleck also implicated?

Who really won Le Tour? I know who won the f*&^%$ Tour.


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Aussie, and thanks for commenting here on the doping situation in cycling.

Ok, so apparently there are a few disgruntled Australian cycling fans out there, but let's keep it level---for many years all three cyclists on the podium had some kind of link to doping at one point or another. Clearly you are implicating Sastre, but the Spanish can just as easily say, "Look at Evans, two 2nd place finishes in a row, and he has beaten a known doper in Bernard Kohl." And also if the rumors are true then Schleck as well.

Baseless attacks and comments do nothing to keep the debate going here, so please come with some evidence or analysis or reasoning at least when you make these comments.

Kind Regards,

Anonymous said...

Well . . . a little unproven speculation from commenters never hurt a blog's reputation ;-), as I'm sure you will agree, scientific integrity notwithstanding.
What helps a team, helps the team's no 1. That's the point, as you very well know.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Yes indeed, you're right. And yes, part of the appeal of topics like this is their polarizing opinion, so of course they are welcome! The thing is that cycling seems to be one giant glass house at the moment, so everyone who accuses might ultimately be implicating themselves. Fair or unfair? Who knows?

It would in fact make an interesting post to go back and find the last DEFINITELY clean rider in the Tour de France's elite - podium, jersey winners, stage winners even...maybe a topic of debate for the future!


Anonymous said...

You draw a parallel between the ACE and the program run by Bispebjerg Hospital for Astana/CSC-Saxobank, but this is a poor comparison for several important reasons.

1. The program run by Belhage and Damsgaard at Bispebjerg Hospital is not a viable business; it may be more accurately described as a team-sponsored anti-doping research program in which part of the program is to test samples and prevent doping (test samples from CSC are used for research purposes). The Bispebjerg program is not run for profit.

2. A crucial element of the Bispebjerg program is that all test results are validated and made available to the UCI and WADA. There is absolutely NO WAY the program can hide a positive test/sample that could be used to ban an athlete; unlike the closed system employed by the ACE.

3. The team has signed a contract with Bispebjerg Hospital that force it to react to a situation where the Researchers feel that they have detected or suspect a case of doping. This is what cost Gusev his job this year and almost cost Arvesen his Giro win last year. The team has no say in it, unless they wish to risk the program being terminated.

Because the guys at Bispebjerg Hospital are researchers, rather than trying to run a business, they have put a lot of effort into ensuring that their credibility cannot be compromised easily.

The program is not perfect, even if Ashenden commented a few months back that he couldn't imagine a better program. Obviously, it would be best if their job could be handled by a completely independent agency and Damsgaard has repeatedly stated that he will close down the program as soon as one would be in place. But as long as there is nothing comparable to it in place, an independent institution such as Bispebjerg running a non-profit test program is pretty close to ideal.