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Monday, December 15, 2008

Top 8 of 08: Number 5

Number 5: The battle against doping shifts gears

There was a time, perhaps 20 years ago, where a positive drug test meant a positive drug test. One of my earliest memories of sport, and specifically of the Olympic Games, was watching the sports news in 1988, and seeing Ben Johnson being hustled out of a press conference in Seoul after returning a positive test for stanozolol, the anabolic steroid that helped propel him to a 9.79 sec clocking. Back then, the positive test was accepted as accurate and true, and Johnson did not deny or fight the ban that would soon be imposed on him.

Jump ahead 20 years, and Austrian cyclist Bernard Kohl, fresh out of the polka dot jersey as the King of the Mountains in this year’s Tour de France, admits to doping before being fired from his Gerolsteiner team and banned for two years.

The fight against doping escalates – doping detectives needed

Between these cases, there are few cases where a high-profile positive test has been accepted and a ban issued without some level of controversy. In the current age, a positive test rarely proves the athlete has doped – it is merely the catalyst for accusation, counter-accusation, arbitration, denial and court cases that further highlight the problems facing professional sport. Some of the highest profile cases, like those of Marco Pantani, Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton and Marion Jones have never been accepted – Pantani, for example, protested his innocence until the very end; Marion Jones admitted to using drugs, but continues to deny her knowledge – they were given to her by a coach, she was the unwitting “victim”.

The last few years have seen the war on doping progress to a new level, one where doping control no longer involves urine or blood tests and a chemical assay to find traces of banned substances. Rather, it has become an elaborate “cops and robbers” type-scenario, where the doping control resembles detective work, including raids on team hotels, headquarters, collaboration with pharmaceutical companies, and, from the perspective of science, the development of the biological passport system.

In 2008, this strategy produced its first significant victories. It is this escalation in the fight against doping, and particularly the pharmaceutical collaboration that brought us the CERA-gate affair and the biological passports that is my fifth-ranked sports science story of 2008.

CERA-gate and proactive doping control

“CERA-gate” is important because it is one of the first occasions where the doping authorities have been ahead of the dopers, lying in wait to pick them up. For those who missed it, CERA is the third-generation of EPO, the drug of choice in the 1990’s. EPO, of course, is a hormone that is produced in the kidneys, acts in the bone marrow and stimulates the production of red blood cells. Cyclists had been using EPO for years to improve endurance performance. Then, around the time of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, a test for EPO was developed, and the drug dropped somewhat out of the news.

It made its comeback in 2008, with CERA, or Continuous Erythropoeitin Receptor Activator, which was manufactured specifically to have a longer-lasting effect on EPO activation and production. This obviously has benefits for medical treatments, but it offered cyclists the opportunity to return to EPO use without being caught. This is because CERA had been chemically modified by the addition of a polyethylene glycol molecule, which, in theory, would make it undetectable by the normal tests.

Or so the cyclists thought. It turns out that Roche, the company producing the drug, had been working together with anti-doping authorities to develop a test for the drug, using this specific chemical alternation as the basis for the test. The drug wasn't specifically designed to be detectable (as was initially reported). Rather, it was the strategic partnership and clever use of the chemical modification that gave the testers a chance to "lay a trap" for the dopers.

Those dopers walked straight into that trap, and received a nasty surprise when their supposedly undetectable drug suddenly started to produce positive results. First to go was Ricardo Ricco, fresh of two stage wins at the Tour de France (and the Giro). Added to him were Leonardo Piepoli, Emmanuelle Serra, Stefan Schumacher (another double stage winner on the Tour) and Bernard Kohl, with potentially more names to come. The IOC recently announced, for example, that it would be retesting hundreds of samples from the Beijing Games (personally, I think the horse had already bolted, because the athletes knew in July that the test existed - any smart ones would have stopped using CERA instantly)

Winning battles in the fight against doping

It was an important coup for doping control, representing a significant gain in the battle against doping. But this was not all – the biological passport system, where riders' blood samples are monitored throughout the season and suspicious patterns flagged as “high-interest” samples, has also gathered momentum, with a large body of scientific experts contributing to the evolution of that 'weapon'.

It was, according to reports, the regular monitoring of Ricco that threw him up as a target for further testing, and which culminated in the CERA-test in July. It is the equivalent of “forensic detective work” for doping control, much like accounting transactions and financial statements might be tracked to flag suspicious activity.

It does have a hint of the clandestine to it (the possibilities of witch-hunts and conspiracy theories exists), but may be just what is required to mop up the image of a seriously tarnished sport. The future of doping – WADA’s new strategies The future of doping control looks likely to involve even more "oppressive" steps - the latest suggestion by WADA is that every athlete must provide WADA with their location for at least one hour every single day - a 'window' during which WADA knows exactly where the athlete is should they be required for testing. Three missed tests within 18 months would constitute a doping violation.

This ruling, proposed to be put into action on January 1 2009, would bring the rest of the world more in line with what Britain has done for the last few years. It was however met with resistance from athletes and administrators. They claim that the rule "effectively places elite players under house arrest for one hour each day, 365 days a year".

Added to this is the extra-ordinary logistical exercise involved, both on the part of WADA, but also on the athlete, though both are not insurmountable problems. The legal issue may be a bigger barrier, because the code is being challenged on the grounds that it is unlawful according to European employment legislation and human rights laws.

Life bans for athletes? Burdens of proof

Unfortunately, this is the way that doping control is headed - ever-more "draconian" methods are required, and I am all for those steps that help to clean up the sport. Where it becomes tricky is in enforcing these findings legally, because that has been the major area where follow through on positive tests seems to have been found wanting.

People have repeatedly called for life-time bans, even for first offenders (probably a bit harsh). The problem with lifetime bans is that you would have to prove beyond any doubt that the athlete cheated, which means it raises the bar that WADA (or the host federation) needs to clear in order to obtain a guilty verdict, following through with any positive tests it is able to obtain. Given the problems of the past, such a measure seems unfeasible until the testing processes are absolutely airtight and completely infallible. Anything less leaves open an even wider gap than before.

2009 will bring the interesting next steps in this doping war. 2008 is probably a tie, the first for a long time (doping authorities having previously been outmanoevured and outmuscled). They'll be hoping 2009 continues the momentum. But it will take manpower, money and a mighty effort.