Is drug testing and the ‘biological passport’ useless for the AFL?

Andrew Sutherland Roar Pro

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In 1997, Richmond ruckman Justin Charles became the first AFL player to be suspended for taking a prohibited substance.

In an interview seven years later he stated, “I may have been the first person caught for using steroids, but if you think I was the first, or the last, you are absolutely kidding yourself.”

The findings by the Australian Crime Commission concerning the use of banned substances in Australian sport and revelations by former AFL players Warren Tredrea and Nathan Brown they were offered such drugs suggests Charles was telling the truth.

And yet, despite five years of intensive blood testing of AFL players, no one has been found to be cheating.

Is drug testing, and more importantly the much-feted ‘biological passport’, essentially useless for weeding out cheats in the AFL?

Ian Fleming’s evil creation Dr No correctly pointed out, “The successful criminal brain is always superior. It has to be.”

If Dr No had been a sports physician he would have shown his superiority by being several steps ahead of the relevant anti-doping agencies.

He would have discovered new performance enhancing drugs, altered the molecular structure of existing ones, used unknown masking agents, or simply advised his charges when and how to self-administer prohibited drugs so they avoided detection by the prevailing doping tests.

It appears there are plenty of Dr Nos about in the AFL; not to mention a bevy of non-medical scientists, rabid entrepreneurs and straight-out crims as their cohorts.

It was the Dr Nos of this world who made it necessary for anti-doping scientists to establish what is referred to as the biological passport for athletes.

The availability of substances that anti-doping agencies hadn’t yet heard of, and the lengthy period of time between the introduction of a drug and the creation of a detection method ensured many doping practices went unnoticed.

By testing an athlete over a period of time, however, a profile of normal biological factors can be established and variations from that profile can be used as evidence of doping even if an actual substance hasn’t been detected.

The most significant example of this is the blood profiling of cyclists by the UCI where variations in such things as haematocrit and haemoglobin levels can indicate the practice of blood doping.

It was only two weeks ago that the league’s medical commissioner Dr Peter Harcourt was talking up the AFL’s intensive testing and blood profiling programme in collaboration with the Australian Anti-Doping Authority.

While he admitted some players had shown irregularities or strange test results, “none of them have come through as anything other than natural.”

Clearly for any player willing to take performance enhancers, avoiding detection is a walk in the park.

The doctor of the South Yarra rejuvenation clinic, from whom Dean Robinson and Stephen Dank sought advice last year, suggested the World Anti-Doping Agency was out of its depth.

WADA’s Australian president John Fahey wouldn’t agree entirely with that but he realises testing is becoming increasingly useless against the smart use of a vast variety of prohibited substances clearly available to AFL footballers.

Perhaps it is time to use what he quaintly terms “non-analytical methods”. That is, the relentless pursuit of whistle-blowers, with vastly reduced penalties and a clear conscience as rewards.

All the testing in the world failed to bring down Lance Armstrong. But as soon as his close friend and former teammate George Hincapie agreed to testify against him, he was doomed.

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