Sunday 13 May 2012

Boxing’s latest doping scandal

I am writing from the country that is bringing you the David Haye/Dereck Chisora fight at Upton Park1, courtesy of the world renowned Luxembourg Boxing Federation. It is hard to know what to think about professional2 boxing as a sport. Perhaps its best just to admire its chutzpah in driving through whatever scandal might get in the way of – or in fact enhance – the pot of money at the end of its blood coloured rainbow.

When it comes to drug testing, professional boxing is essentially unregulated. There are usually tests at each fight and sometimes before; the details can form part of the negotiating process. But there is no out of competition testing. Given the length of time between many fights (sometimes as long as six months) it is hard to believe that the sport is drug free. 

The most recent scandal involves US boxer Lamont Petersen. Peterson controversially beat the British boxer Amir Khan to win the WBA and IBF light welterweight titles in December 2011. As part of the rematch scheduled this month the Peterson camp suggested the two fighters agree to voluntary drug testing. Peterson has just failed his test and the fight has been cancelled. The Shakespearean phrase “hoist with his own petard” springs to mind.

The nature of this failed drug testing is intriguing. Let’s leave aside the fact that you have to work quite hard to fail a drug test that you initiated and which you know could only be taken in a short time window. Or the irony that one of the chief supporters of the drug-testing agency used – VADA3 – is Victor Conte, the BALCO chief who supplied the drugs that UK sprinter Dwain Chambers was caught using. What about the science?

Peterson tested positive for “synthetic” testosterone, an anabolic steroid.  This is the same compound that Floyd Landis  - the disgraced Tour de France winner – was banned for.

Why testosterone? Well testosterone is the human anabolic steroid. Although it is not the optimum steroid to take for performance, athletes use it in the hope that it can’t be distinguished from natural testosterone in a doping test.

Why synthetic? Purifying natural testosterone from human or other animals would be extortionately expensive (in the book I note the heroic attempts in the 1930s to isolate testosterone; the starting materials varied from 20 kg of bulls’ testicles to 15,000 litres of German policemen’s urine). Nowadays a steroid from soya beans called Diosgenin can be purified cheaply in large quantities – this can then readily be turned into testosterone in a chemistry laboratory.

The problem for Peterson is that – even though its molecular structure and muscle building activity is identical to the testosterone we produce in our own bodies – the synthetic version contains a clue as to its specific plant origin. This clue is the carbon isotope ratio (CIR). Carbon is the atom that is the backbone for all the molecules in our bodies. Mostly it has a mass of 12 (C12). But a small percentage of carbon atoms are heavier, with a mass of 13. (C13). We get all our carbon from the food we eat. So the ratio in our body is the average of all the plants we have eaten (either directly or via the plants that the animals we eat have themselves eaten). The normal human ratio is 98.9% C12 and 1.1% C13. But soya beans have a slightly different ratio of 99.0% C12 to 1.0% C13.

A machine called an isotope ratio mass spectrometer can measure this ratio in the testosterone from an athlete’s urine sample. Hence the presence of the banned synthetic testosterone can be detected over and above the body’s normal testosterone. A CIR test is expensive and is only done by WADA for confirmation when testers are already suspicious of a sample (as was the case for Floyd Landis4). But VADA pride themselves on doing this test on all samples. This is the test that tripped Peterson up.

Could Peterson have avoided being caught by the test? Yes, if he paid someone to make testosterone from a human or animal starting material.  But this would be extortionately expensive. There is one other possibility. As it is the presence of two different carbon ratios that is the clue to the doping, changing your diet might fool the test. First the good news I’ve passed the test; now the bad news, I had to eat only soya beans for the three months before……..

1.   Upton Park is the current home of West Ham football club who won the original bid to take over the Olympic Stadium. In my fantasy alternative universe with a two-year time lapse the fight could have been the first post Olympic event in this stadium.

2.   In contrast Olympic boxing (the 3 round version) has to obey all the WADA drug testing rules.

3.  VADA uses WADA approved laboratories so the test result itself is robust

4.  Click here for a nice link to the Landis case.

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