Tuesday, 7 September 2021

Doping at the Tokyo Paralympic Games

As someone with a chronic, progressive disability, I have mixed views about the Paralympics. For me an inspirational story for someone with a disability is surviving another day in good cheer and not being too much of a burden on others. Interestingly as my disability has got worse my feelings about the Paralympics have, if anything, become more conflicted. I suspect what I am feeling is something akin to what I felt about elite sport when I was young. The realisation of a young boy that I was never good enough to play centre forward for the England football team has now been joined by an ageing man who has been reminded that another opportunity for sporting excellence has passed him by. Probably time to see my therapist again! 

Anyway, this is a roundabout way of saying that I watch the Paralympics solely as an example of elite sport and view it on those terms. Studies show that elite sport or even hosting the Olympic Games has no discernible benefit in improving the health of physical activity of the nation. I strongly suspect that the Paralympics likewise have minimal, if any, effect on the physical activity and/or rights of disabled people. But, actually why should we put this “burden of inspiration” on Paralympians. Let’s just treat them as elite athletes in their own right. No more, no less. Neither positive nor negative role models. Just ordinary people doing extraordinary deeds. The same as the Olympians. 


Viewed in that light, as I said about London 2012, we should expect the same issues to arise in Paralympic sport with regards to doping. And they do. In fact, Paralympians with spinal cord injuries even have their own unique way of cheating. “Boosting” by blocking a catheter, squeezing a scrotum or breaking a toe can increase performance by inducing a pain free rise in blood pressure. Even in more “normal” doping methods, Paralympians equal or outshine Olympians. We don’t have the Tokyo numbers yet, but in Rio 2016, roughly the same number of doping tests per competitor were carried out at the Olympics and the Paralympics. The Paralympians “won” by having 0.71% positive tests compared to the Olympians 0.59%. 


So let’s raise a “tainted” toast to Marcin Polak, the Polish visually impaired tandem cyclist. Polak ‘won’ a bronze medal on August 25, but then was informed two days later that he had tested positive for the blood booster EPO in an earlier out of competition test on August 2 and so had to cut short his Paralympic “journey” [1]. Polak reminds us that Paralympians are the same as Olympians in all ways, good bad and ugly. And that’s why – on reflection – I think I’ll carry on watching the Paralympics after all. Next stop Paris......


[1] For those wondering why Polack was allowed to compete on August 25,when his positive test sample was collected on August 2, this is a most likely due to the peculiarity of EPO testing. The interpretation of the test gel is somewhat subjective, so requires independent verification by a second anti-doping laboratory. So the Warsaw positive result had to be re-analysed, and confirmed  by the Tokyo lab, before the athlete would have been informed.  Hence the reason for the delay.  

Monday, 6 September 2021

Doping at the Tokyo Olympic Games

My first blog in almost two years. Perhaps because nothing much has changed in the period in the field or perhaps because I had other things to do in my life! Still, hopefully I can be a bit more fruitful in the future.

I covered my current views on the Olympics in a podcast I did for the Economist which is openly accessible by the link below. 





For the podcast, I was asked to comment on drugs like AICAR and other so-called “exercise mimetics”. I might follow up on this with a couple of future blogs. 


There was a nice graphic also from the Economist contrasting different countries doping in athletics 




I was also featured in an article in the Daily Telegraph newspaper (unfortunately behind a firewall).




If you don’t have time to follow these links, my take home messages about the Tokyo Olympics are:


·      It is unclear how much the pandemic has impacted on the effectiveness of out-of-competition anti-doping tests in the run up to the Olympics. Presumably it has been slightly easier to avoid being caught although it also might have been difficult to procure and effectively use doping methods.  

·      The IAAF’s Athlete Integrity Unit (AIU) are having an impact. I was surprised there was not more media outcry over the significant number of athletes not allowed to compete in the game because they were not tested enough, apparently through no fault of their own. I guess the list of athletes and the countries they represented did not appear high enough profile for the Western media I follow, although I suspect there was more outcry in the countries themselves, such as Nigeria. https://www.independent.co.uk/sport/olympics/olympics-tokyo-athletes-drug-testing-b1892437.html

·      We saw one highly significant event; the readmission of essentially the whole Russian team; this despite the Russian anti-doping agency still not being WADA compliant and no admission from Russia that there was any state involvement in cheating. This seems to have put this issue to bed, perhaps in a not altogether satisfactory manner. We await to see how IOC, WADA and CAS deal with the next state player that is involved in doping. It seems the precedent has been set for a mild rebuke for the county concerned. An individual who is selected by that country will still be able to compete with zero penalties unless doping evidence exists against that specific individual. Countries themselves will never suffer the ultimate sanction of their athletes not being allowed to compete in the Olympics. Time will tell if this works as any kind of deterrent. 

·      The issue of potentially non-performance enhancing drugs being on the banned list arose (at least in the US media) because of the positive test for cannabis of Sha'Carri Richardson in the US Olympic trials. This case just seems to show that even the high-profile athletes in a country with a well-funded and assertive anti-doping agency, still don’t seem to treat the WADA list with enough seriousness. Richardson should have known she would likely be drug tested if she finished in the top three at the US trials and  – so whatever her mental state at the time – her elite athlete warning bells should have sounded off that she was breaking a rule that would likely result in a ban. Given how well she ran at the trials, she was obviously superbly prepared in every other way to perform.

·      At the games themselves there were the usual spattering of positive tests. The cynical comment is that you only catch the “dopy” dopers at the Games themselves, as those in the know will be well aware of how long a drug lasts in their system and will arrive “clean”. It is true that sometimes a better detection method can catch dopers unawares. However, this happens rarely at the Games themselves, but instead when samples are retested over the next 10 years. Over 130 athletes were retrospectively stripped of their results from the Rio 2016 and London 2012 Games. Athletes who have doped at the 2021 Olympics can really only breathe a sigh of relief that they have got away with cheating when the samples they have given are destroyed in 2031.  

·      In light of the above it was unusual that a positive test for one of the more high-profile track and field athletes - Blessing Okagbare – was reported at the Games.  Okagbare tested positive for human growth hormone. However, although reported at the Games, the test was taken out-of-competition on 19 July. Despite already having received any performance benefit, she would probably have tested ‘clean’ when competing at the Games, again stressing the importance of out of competition testing (it should be noted that Okagbare  has so far not admitted to any offence) https://www.athleticsintegrity.org/downloads/pdfs/disciplinary-process/en/AIU-PRESS-RELEASE-BLESSING-OKAGBARE-OF-NIGERIA-PROVISIONALLY-SUSPENDED.pdf

·      Of course, for my own country the big issue was the sprinter CJ Ujah, who was one of the athletes in the 4 x 100m silver medal winning team. He tested positive for S23 and ostsarine – two Selective Androgen Receptor Modulators. These are on the banned list for two reasons. First they are aimed at improving muscle mass (like anabolic steroids) but without the adverse sex hormone side effects; and secondly they are both investigational drugs that are not approved for human use anywhere in the world. This doesn’t stop unscrupulous supplement companies adding them to their formulations. Of course, as they are not approved for human use, they won’t be listed on the label. It looks like this ‘mislabelling’ might be the defence CJ Ujah’s laywers will use. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/olympics/article-9896225/CJ-Ujah-set-blame-labelling-error-positive-test-strip-GB-4x100m-relay-silver.html
If Ujah still has the bottle in question, can get it retested and show it contains S23 and ostarine, this might just reduce the length of his penalty. But, I predict that the silver medal will still be lost, as he won’t be able to prove that he did not get a performance benefit from the drug in his system.

·      I am continually surprised why elite athletes insist on using supplements that have minimal performance benefit (unless they contain anbabolic steroids or SARMS of course). Taking ANY supplement seems a very high risk:reward ratio. It suggests athletes  (or their coaches) have not carefully read or digested the comprehensive IAAF Consenus statement on nutrition. The only evidence-based supplements are caffeine, bicarbonate, beta-alanine, nitrate, and creatine (none of which are on the banned list) https://journals.humankinetics.com/view/journals/ijsnem/29/2/article-p73.xml.   
It follows that if an athlete sees performance benefits using any other supplement than these five, it is likely a placebo effect or due to a “contaminant” in the bottle.  A contaminant that could get you a ban. 
Caveat emptor.