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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Doping = success?

The science of doping - positive means nothing, negative means nothing. So what to do?

Last week saw some interesting debate around doping and sports achievers, inspired by Jonathan's post on the start of cycling's first Grand Tour of the year, the Giro d'Italia. The shift to the Grand Tours usually serves as the catalyst for doping discussions - sadly, few races will go by without a big doping story. Even before the Giro began, doping hit the news. And I suspect that the next few months may well stimulate further doping debates on this site, as well as others that cover the sport of cycling.

In response to that article, we got some pretty interesting comments and opinions from readers, and those have been fermenting in my mind for the last few days, inspiring this post. Then, this morning, I came across a journal with some discussion around the "science of doping" and it seemed a good marriage between the discussions.

The problem with performance: Is doping non-negotiable?

To begin with, the post last week discussed the recent positive tests of Rashid Ramzi and Davide Rebellin, and mentioned that the environment we find ourselves in compels us to question pretty much every athletic performance. A winner in sport (particularly cycling and athletics) not only receives medals and prize money, but now also inherits a mantle of suspicion thanks to what is a growing history of doped up champions. So, we watch the men's 100m final and see an incredibly dominant victory by Usain Bolt. Sadly, we are almost compelled to ASK (not judge, take note) whether the performance is believable? Yesterday, watching the first mountian-top finish of the Giro, I felt myself asking the same question of just about every cyclist attacking off the front.

Because we've been shown by case after case that success is often achieved thanks to doping (remember for example that 4 out of the last 6 100m champions have tested positive, and every winner of the Tour de France since 1996 has either confessed, been implicated through investigative work, or tested positive despite some denials), we tend to lapse into a "guilty" verdict all the time.

In response to this post, we received the following comments - I've taken the relative bits out of two of them, but you can read the originals here:

I agree with Cassio. Bolt is obviously doped.

If he can do a lot better than previous doped runners, he is doped too. Of course he is very talented, and his junior results show just that. But I see that as an explanation of his amazing results, if he wasn´t talented, with or without doping, he would never be able to get those far superior times.

I'm sure of two things: Bolt is an amazing athlete and person, very talented guy and makes people happy. Second: Bolt is very, very doped, if it is possible to be more than just doped...

I concur, Anonymous. I'm always amazed that our sports scientists (seem to?) think that many champions & gold medalists are completely clean. Is this attitude wide-spread among your colleagues or are you the only optimists hoping that people can break world-records without doping?

Personally, I've heard sport MDs (e.g. Moosburger) claim - quite to the contrary - that it is unlikely that any records have been broken without doping in the last 40 or 50 years. That's pretty much the same I keep hearing from different people practising competetive sports & doping themselves.

Both comments are fairly (very) cynical. As a scientist, I applaud your cynicism! These viewpoints represent the far extreme of opinion on a spectrum that extends all the way from "believer" to "complete cynic". So there are people who believe the all winners and sportsmen are clean. I once received an email saying that professional sportspeople love their bodies and respect their health and so they would never dope! On the other extreme is this view, which pretty much states that success REQUIRES doping, and therefore the only requirement to catch a dope cheat is to observe who wins!

Neight extreme is particularly "selective" in how it approaches the problem, and I think most people will appreciate that this is unlikely to produce a very fair or accurate assessment. Either you believe that no-one dopes and wins, or that everyone must dope to win. The first case of an athlete who does not fit the model disproves it and so not many would have such a dogmatic view.

Flags and pointers

Instead, most would (we hope) recognize that it's unlikely to be that clear-cut either way. Our approach, speaking now as the above mentioned sports scientists who are involved in sport from both a scientific and sports-coaching perspective (and marketing, in my case) would be to evaluate every case on the collection of evidence for it, thought this is obviously very difficult to do. Too much misinformation, too much deception, denials in the face of strong evidence, and evidence that is often questionable all complicate matters.

One of the most telling (or suspicious) factors is a sudden improvement in the performance. People were suspicious of Rashid Ramzi for this reason - nowhere one year, double world champ the next. Erratic performances outside of major championships are another - again, Ramzi is a case in point - between the odd world championship gold he did little or nothing in major meetings.

The trouble with both arguments is that they exclude athletes who either develop later (admittedly, a small group), or because those major performances could just as easily be attributed to a "periodized training programme" and a focus on only a few races. That's one we've heard a lot in cycling and the Tour de France in recent years. So it's easy to say "I told you so" in the case of Ramzi, because people's suspicions seem to have been confirmed. But they may well be incorrect in other cases.

Even evaluating a historical progression of performance poses problems. In the aftermath of Usain Bolt's remarkable Beijing performances, we looked at his times as a junior when he displayed remarkable talent from a young age when drugs were almost certainly not a factor. Problem is, some people looked at the same performances and said he IS doping, we said it suggested he wasn't! So the same numbers produce two different conclusions!

Similarly, many of the top east Africans emerge as teenagers running times that clearly set them apart as world-class, and with training and maturity, their normal progression could be to the status of world record holder. Here, the problem is that we are never 100% sure that their ages are reported accurately, and we just don't know where the ceiling exists - projecting times forward is very difficult to do. And so performance reviews are fraught with difficulty.

Doping control - proof of innocence and guilt?

And this brings us onto doping control, where it gets really interesting! In an ideal world, athletes would be tested, and the results from the infallible laboratory and willing athletes would tell us that an athlete can be believed as clean or disqualified as a dope cheat. Unfortunately, that is a dream that belongs in the past.

Doping control became so flawed in recent times as the testers fell behind the cheats that drugs were being used with zero chance of being detected. Methods to avoid detection, drugs that were undetectable, and conspiracies and collusion to cover up positive tests mean that the ideal is far removed from the reality. The world was made aware of this when a designer steroid called THG was discovered only because an anonymous tip-off from a coach sent a syringe to doping authorities. Without personal rivalrly and jealousy leading to this tip-off, there is no telling whether we might still be celebrating the performances of Marion Jones, Dwain Chambers and Tim Montgomery.

I have heard quotes from some experts to the effect that for every banned substance we CAN test for, there is another we can't. Others say, perhaps with some hyperbole, that there are 100 undetectable products! Last year, the Tour de France threw up a test for CERA, a newly designed third-generation EPO, which was supposed to be undetectable, but for the collaboration between WADA and the pharmaceutical company that made it. The question is - how many CERAs exist where collaboration has NOT discovered the test?

Marion Jones would be a multiple gold-medallist, one of the greatest athletes in history and perfectly clean in the eyes of those who advocate that "when you pass a drug test, it means you are innocent". To this day, Jones has never failed a drug test - it was only the "manhunt" that ensued when the BALCO affair began that exposed her.

Similarly, cyclists who claim to be clean and point to their record of being tested often are proving nothing. Being the most tested athlete or sport in the world does not mean the same thing as being a dope-free athlete. So sadly, we can't believe the negative tests.

Positive tests - do they mean anything?

Even more sadly, according to some experts in recent times, we can't believe the positive tests either! In 2008, a paper in the prestigious journal Nature called into view what was called the "fallacy" of the current doping testing practices. The paper, written by a bio-statistician, asked the question "When an athlete tests positive, is he or she guilty of doping?" He went on to answer his own question with the following: "Because of what I believe to be inherent flaws in the testing practices of doping laboratories, the answer, quite possibly, is no."

The article, which you can access with a subscription (or feel free to email us if you'd fancy a copy), was the catalyst for a whole series of comments and debates around the general principle of doping control. Papers have been published (and criticized) calling WADA to task for their ability to accurately test for drug use. Court cases are usually the result of these flaws, because any athlete worth his weight in legal fees recognizes that when a possible weakness in testing exists, it must be legally challenged. Why confess when you can get off on a technicality?

Unfortunately, technicalities do happen, and that makes enforcing doping control very difficult, if not impossible. People have called for life-time bans for drug cheats - this is impossible unless the system to catch dopers is 100% accurate. It isn't, though I'd like to think it is improving (based on what I have heard from colleagues).

The reality is that testing neither proves nor disproves doping. It provides a guide, certainly, and perhaps the introduction of the blood passport system will see the status quo change. I'm sceptical myself, mostly because everything is still so clandestine.

Wikinomics, jury duty and all available evidence

Regular readers will recall that I advocated what I called "Wiki" doping control a while back, based on a book called Wikinomics, which itself is a symptom of the latest trends in how the world operates. The days of narrow hierarchies and chains-of-command have been replaced by open-source, collaborative efforts. Without rehashing the book and business principles, I believe doping control should consider means to spread the knowledge in order to become more responsive to the problem, and this means secrecy is not an option.. Sadly, it's very secretive, and may well find itself falling further and further behind the modern "organization" that drives doping.

In any event, where does this leave us? When we assess performances, like those of the Giro winner (whoever that may be) or Usain Bolt, we have to make the best possible call based on ALL the evidence. I think we are headed for an era where doping sanctions are handled like legal court-cases, and the admissable evidence is not limited to a doping test.

Rather, they will be run like a criminal trial where all the evidence is weighed up and a verdict delivered. Where this kind of process would leave those athletes who remain in the "dock", I don't know. If I were on the jury, I certainly know what verdict i'd be reaching!

There are no answers to these questions. What I do know is that there are elite athletes who succeed without doping, and there are plenty of successful athletes who are doping without getting caught. The doubt is pervasive, and sadly everyone is tainted by it. Your thoughts are, as always, welcome, and if you have any suggestions, feel free to give them.



Anonymous said...

"every winner of the Tour de France since 1996 has either confessed or tested positive despite some denials"
Ummmm... not sure about that one, ask your lawyer if that applies to Jan Ullrich, Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador or Carlos Sastre... Best to fix typos like this, otherwise you undermine your message and the blog in general.

teamcinzano said...

The statement applies to Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich for certain. Alberto Contador has been linked with Operation Puerto and admittedly worked with Fuentes before his ascent to Bruyneel's teams. Heck, he turned pro with ONCE in 2003 and stayed there until OP took down Liberty Seguros.

So that leaves Sastre. I haven't heard any direct and serious allegations about him, but there's plenty of suspicion surrounding his former team and its owner. Just ask Basso and the Schlecks.

Macker said...

Just came across your blog. Good stuff. I've always given Geb the benefit of the doubt. So dominant and consistent for so long.

The Sports Scientists said...

Hi Anonymous, and thanks for your comment here.

In fact Jan Ullrich is about to have a hearing Switzerland regarding Operacion Puerto. He volunteered a DNA sample in February 2007 so that the prosecutors in Germany could compare it to the blood seized from Dr. Feuntes' office. It turned out that it was in fact Ullrich's blood, needless to say.

That means he was working with Feuntes at least in 2006 but likely from some time before that. My guess is that the blood doping started around 2001 after a test to detect EPO was made available. Interestingly, Alejandro Valverde was also just sanctioned by the Italians because a DNA sample taken from last year's tour proved he also had blood sitting with Fuentes.

But to say Ullrich won the tour in 1997 clean is farcical, because it would make him the lone winner (and also podium finisher) that was not implicated during that era. In 1997 Ullrich beat Richard Virenque (confessed doper) and Marco Pantani (known doper). Fourth was Abraham Olano, who also had EPO in his samples from the 1999 tour. Admittedly that does not prove he doped in 1997, but it also leaves little doubt in my mind if one looks at his performances in 1997 in relation to the three riders who finished in front of him.

So there is little evidence that cycling in the 1990s was free from EPO or doping, especially when it comes to the winners of the tour.

And back to Ullrich for a second, the investigation by the Germans was into the systematic doping of Team Telekom and T-Mobile from 1995-2006 by two doctors at a clinic in Freiburg. Andreas Kloden was just identified as receiving a blood transfusion in that program together with Patrick Sinkewitz and Matthias Kessler after Stage 1 of the 2006 tour.

So it was not a typo, and we will stand by those opinions, because the problem for cycling is that it is rotten to the core, and very few successful cyclists from the 1990s are untainted.

The bigger picture of the post is that in sport we have moved away from a simple "positive or negative" test and instead we have to look at the entire picture. The history of cycling is rife with doping, and as such dictates the skepticism with which we approach this issue, especially when dealing with the era in the 1990s when EPO (ab)use was rampant as there was no test for it.

Riders like Ullrich and Valverde did not test positive for autologous or homologous blood doping, and if they are clean then one must ask the question why did they have bags of their own blood sitting with a doctor in Spain? Why did the three T-Mobile riders travel to Freiburg for transfusions during the 2006 Tour?

I do not doubt that at least some of the riders in the peloton were clean in the 1990s (and also today), but 10-20 years ago no one is free from suspicion and the links are sometimes two and three riders deep.

Personally I believe that eventually Ullrich will admit to doping, because if this Swiss hearing comes back against him it will be his second offense it will mean a lifetime ban for him. (The first was that ecstasy positive some years ago---even though it was out-of-competition at the time, and very likely a recreational use, it qualified as a positive test.) That means he would not be able to hold any high-up positions on any team sanctioned by the UCI. This will leave him with little incentive to remain quiet as his future in cycling would be limited and quite bleak for him, unfortunately.

Thanks again for reading and for your.

Kind Regards,

teamcinzano said...

Jonathan said, "Personally I believe that eventually Ullrich will admit to doping, because if this Swiss hearing comes back against him it will be his second offense it will mean a lifetime ban for him. "

He has already as much as made an admission, recently quipping to the press that anyone who didn't understand what happened in cycling in the 1990s and 2000s is beyond his help. Though I can't remember the exact quote, it's hard to read the sentiment as anything other than an admission and commentary on the general state of cycling during the era. The only question now is whether the 2010s will be different that the 20-old years of the golden age of blood doping.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for quoting me in your article. I'll start to sign my name in the comments I do.

Of course I was being a bit cynical.

I am, for now, a national champion athlete, but more important, I train frequently with some Olympic athletes, one of them a silver medal winner. In this training partners we have some swimmers, cyclists and runners. Of what I know, none of them is doped or tried to dope himself, I assure you I'm very close to them, at least 4 hours/day.

So I think I know it is possible to win an olympic silver medal, minor cycling tours, track and swimming national records without doping.

I also think some of these guys are very talented, but they have already almost reached their limits, without doping they won't progress significatively. That's because they have been training with all the resources they have now, there is nothing to improve anymore.

Doing the analogy to Bolt, he should have stopped to progress like that some time ago, unless he wasn't doing all he could to improve 2 or 3 years ago. Our improvement line has a great slope in the beggining, and then that slope goes to zero faster and faster. In my point of view Bolt is doped.

I can't take any conclusions about Phelps, he could well be a perfect product of perferct training, nutrition and so on.

The Cycling Addiction said...

Always interesting to read the thoughts and opinions of those on this subject. Especially since I am admitted former user and now speak to those who are tempted in using. While I competed in an activity for many years that I did not to be concerned about testing or masking my use I have personal insight for not only my own progressions and wins, but for many athletes around me. There are things I know because I have been on that side of the discussion that those on the other side cannot understand and it is interesting to me to read the speculations of those who do not understand. What I know helps me to reach out on a personal level and communicate with those who are tempted are already on that path.

I have nothing to really include here, but I do enjoy reading the blog because it helps me understand the viewpoints of those who would like to see all sport activities as clean and pure. I would love to see clean athletes as well, but my concern is for the health and welfare of the athlete first and foremost.

Vava said...

Not a cyclist, so I won't take a stand and try to defend the sport akin to the other commentors. However, I would be very interested in reading the article from Nature magazine that is referenced in this post. I cannot find your e-mail (as per instructions in the post) anywhere on your site, and I am not a Facebook user. Could you please forward a copy, if at all possible, to vava[at]bikerider[dot]com? (I know, I said I wasn't a cyclist, so what's with the email address? I was a bike messenger in a past life...)

In short, great post! As a big baseball fan the whole doping thing is very much on the minds of all who enjoy that sport. Perhaps unlike any other baseball's history is tied to statistics of the most complex (and mundane) variety, leading to questions and comparisons between the performances of today's stars to yesterday's heros.

Anonymous said...


"One of the most telling (or suspicious) factors is a sudden improvement in the performance"

I am not sure on this one, because a progressive improvement over any period of time does not prove an athlete has not been doping for a much longer time.

In the last 2 years, a wonderful job (only availabe in french, mostly with the book "L'engrenage: l'affaire Jeanson") has been done by Alain Gravel (a journalist in Québec, Canada) to track Geneviève Jeanson, an ex-top-of-the-world-cyclist. After years, month, days and hours of schizophrenic denials, she finaly "cracked down" in an interviews...confessing she had been doped (EPO) since she was 16 years old (so to speak nearly all her career long).

So, to me, knowing performances from an athlete when he was 18, 16 or even 14 years old doesn't prove anything at all. Progression can be average because the athlete has been on a doping program since his real begenning in the sport.

I am myself a coach in track and field, mostly for very talented teenagers from 12 to 18. As far as I know, their rivals are not doped. But to be fully honest, there is a least one young girl in our province for whom I would not be one (faraway) day surprised to learn she is already running on some unhealthy help... I have no strong reason or proof to incriminate an athlete under 17 years old , but she will already be at a high level when we may learn she as been cheating for a long time.

So, no sudden improvement in performance but a steady progression since early ages does not prove an athlete is clean when he gets older. It only suggest more cynism !

(as a philosophy teacher, I would like to add this: cynism is an Ancient Greek philosophy without too much ideas. One of them suggest that we may look for moderation...so it means a return to natural needs and pleasure -instead of ones coming from civilisation. Well, we cannot be cynical about doping as long as we want to express the idea that drugs are not nccessary to live a good life. That would be a more exact way to consider the word "cynism")

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

HI anonymous

You're right - the progressive improvement does not necessarily mean the athlete is dope-free.

But, we never said that it did. What we said is that a sudden improvement is a sign of doping. It does not necessarily imply the opposite. You've created an argument out of the opposite position, but it's an inferred (in this case incorrectly) argument.

So you're quite right, but that is not at all what we are suggesting when we say that a sudden improvement implies doping. Nor are you actually disagreeing with the statement about sudden improvements, but rather the inferred argument.

What I will say is that when you look at these young children from Jamaica or Kenya are not doping. Particularly for the Kenyans, many have never come across any form of medicine,and so doping for a 17-year old athlete seems to be beyond possible.

In other societies, I'm sure it happens. I suspect it might be a problem in cycling, where national junior teams and a well develop club structure would facilitate doping systems (and sadly, the national federations were once, and may still be, complicit in many of these, according to reports).


Anonymous said...

It's certainly very difficult to disagree with your analysis on the prevalnce of doping in cycling and other sports.

My question is whether you think it is ever going to be faesible to eliminate doping in sport. I'd be interested in your position on legalising PEDs in sport. Haver you considered a full post on the pros and cons?

For sports such as rugby and cricket, doping control is feasible because drug use provides only an indirect benefit. Thus athletes are easier to deter. But endurance sports such as cycling provide such a huge incentive for athletes to dope that I wonder if doping control will ever be feasible. As soon as one or two athletes dope this results in a prisoner's dilemma, which increases the incentives on the rest of the field.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Anonymous

You make some really good points. And it's a topic that we should cover, certainly.

a guy called Michael Shermer from Scientific American wrote a really interesting piece last year, on the doping problem and Game Theory, and he spoke of the same Prisoner's dilemma that you've raised. The problem, as you point out, is that the incentive to dope far outweighs the risks of getting caught.

That is due to two factors. First is the massive benefit of doping - the difference between winning and losing is enormous with respects to prize money, prestige, status etc. And drugs work, so the glory is accessible if you use drugs. Given the benefit, doping is a very powerful force. Then added to this are the relatively poor methods of detection. Any elite athlete must look at the doping controls and fancy their chances of beating them. With undetectable drugs, methods of masking detection, and good old fashioned legal loopholes, there is little disincentive against doping.

So the combination of these factors skews the old prisoner's dilemma - the incentives are enormous, the disincentives almost trivial. Therefore, the 'rational' athlete will dope!

That's why I think the first priority needs to be for WADA and other doping controls to open the testing policies, make them 100% transparent and allow all scientists to contribute to the battle. When the entire community is tasked with detection, then the doping athlete may think twice.

Then, they need to tighten the penalties. The disincentive must be increased. The problem with trying to do this is that if you increase the penalty, then you need to be even more certain than ever that your methods of detection are water-tight, otherwise you can't enforce them without risks of unjustly punishing people. That brings up the previous point about detection, so the two have to happen concurrently.

Finally, to answer the key question: Is it even possible to have doping control?

I don't know. I think it is, though of course, you'll never get rid of it completely. you have the legal system and death penalty but you still have violent crime. But you can have doping deterrents that work BETTER than the current ones, if they open control up and enforce harsher penalties. But these days, when a positive test is announced, it's usually only the beginning of a long, protracted debate.

As for legalization, that has come up a few times among scientists in the last few years. Ethicists have argued it both ways.

I would not like to see it happen - it has moral implications, health implications and I don't think that sport should become a battle of pharmaceuticals. Of course, there is already an element of this in sport - the guy with better equipment wins, and so on. However, I think the moral implications of doping differ (and then there are health risks of doping).

I would prefer to see the controls fixed up, rather than an approach of "we can't beat them, so let them dope".

But it's an interesting dilemma.


Roadent said...

You just have to read Bernard Kohl's comments in Cyclingnews around avoiding positive tests to see that doping is probably much, much more pervasive that is imagined:

"His continued the use of performance-enhancing substances was not hindered by doping controls. "Out of 200 controls, 198 showed nothing. And I tell you, 100 of them should have been positive. "I would give myself a shot in the morning, the controllers came an hour later - so what."

Blood passport ineffective?

Kohl moreover said that the UCI's blood passport had been a big help to his career, implying that the system does not detect doping as expected. "I had the blood passport for a year and a half, and my blood values were A-1. That's why I got my super contract with Silence-Lotto." "

Kinda shuts down the whole "never tested positive" defense, doesn't it?

For what it's worth, Carlos Sastre looks like one of the only GT winners of the last fifteen years that could conceivably be clean - he's known as "Mr Clean" in the peloton and has a public, and visceral, hatred for doping enabalers.

Looks like a duck, sounds like a duck...

Anonymous said...

Why isn't there a standard depository of blood samples etc. that can be referenced at future dates? That would be a strong disincentive to doping. Anyone who doped and won would always be looking over their shoulder wondering when they will get caught even if they got away with it at first using some new designer drug. Their win and their career would never be safe if they were a cheat. That could be a very powerful disincentive in a world where the incentives far outweigh the disincentives. It could also be a useful resource to address and help eliminate questions about the reliability of any one group's test results.

Stair ClimbLunatic said...

Great piece and enjoyable comment section as well........

Funny thing - the word verification to post this comment is "roped" - almost doped. LOL!