Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Is there excessive doping at the London 2012 Olympics?


I am writing this blog near the end of the Olympics – but as I go on holiday in a few days I thought I would take the risk of summarizing my view of what has happened so far. The events started with a well-orchestrated bang as the International Association of Athletics Federations announced the banning of nine track and field athletes on the eve of the games. Three were caught when samples were re-tested from last year’s world championships. Six were banned based on the “athlete biological passport”.

Both the number of athletes and the nature of the tests were significant. The London anti doping laboratory will keep the athletes’ urine and blood samples taken Olympics for eight years. At any time in the future they can be re-tested. This has been done before; in fact there has been some controversy over how little was done with the Athens samples collected at the 2004 Olympics, the statute of limitations for testing of which is about to run out. However, recently some re-tests were ordered and amongst those caught were the Belarusian hammer thrower Ivan Tsikhan. In the case of London, I suspect the World Anti Doping agency will be much more aggressive.  They have collected more samples than ever before and – uniquely – have stored the data in a way designed to capture the molecular fingerprint of as many unknown drugs as possible. I think it is now very risky to use a previously undetectable or unknown drug at the games itself; all potential medalists will be tested and eight years is a long time to keep a secret. We have seen before with the US BALCO scandal when a disgruntled coach sent a syringe of the undetectable steroid to the US anti doping agency, there is little honour amongst thieves.

However, testing at the games is only one part of an effective anti doping strategy. Out of competition testing, both random and targeted at suspicious athletes, is key to catch athletes who can get benefits from drugs even if they stop taking well before the games themselves. A new innovation is the athlete biological passport. This aims to take regular snapshots of an athlete’s metabolism via urine and blood samples to see whether there are any suspicious changes that might indicate doping are occurring. In principle an athlete can be banned via this indirect “smoking gun” even if no actual banned drug is found in their body. At present this is limited to detecting blood doping, but it is hoped to extend it to hormonal markers that might include human growth hormone and anabolic steroids. Bans have indeed been implemented in cycling and track and field athletics. I believe that combining aggressive use of the passport in a small cohort of registered elite athletes with holding all samples and data for eight years would make it prohibitively difficult to cheat by doping. But the cost of such a program would make it impossible to implement in all Olympic sports.

So what has happened at this year’s games? As many have said before it is rare to catch someone at the games itself (why dope when you are almost certain to be tested?). So there has been the usual procession of “dopy” dopers i.e. people who are just bad at cheating or cheat by mistake. One athlete fell foul of the same steroid, stanozolol, that Ben Johnson was caught using in his infamous 1988 100m race. Perhaps the doper hadn’t read his history? Another ate a brownie before he left for the games that he claimed someone had laced with marijuana. Thanks mate!

But the real controversy has been about commentators (including those on the BBC) and some coaches (step forward John Leonard) implying people had been doping simply due to posting a fast time. For reasons I have discussed elsewhere this approach is fraught with danger. In the case of the Chinese swimmer, Ye Shewin, there is a really nice statistical discussion on the BBC web page that shows her time, whilst outstanding, is not so unusual that it should trigger accusations of doping (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-19116749)

I will be talking about this, and more (including my demonstration of blood doping using red wine) when I discuss my book Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 27 (http://www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/chris-cooper). 

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