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Is the current sports drug-testing regime fair?

Roar Guru
13th August, 2012
3
1096 Reads

Many national and international sporting federations today are indeed very determined to eradicate the use of performance enhancing drugs.

Testing now includes biological passports which involve measuring and monitoring an athlete’s blood variables over time and establishing an individual longitudinal profile.

This approach is much more effective in regard to catching athletes using synthetic versions of testosterone, erythropoietin (EPO) and human growth hormone (HGH), natural hormones of the body.

Just recently, biological passport analysis caught three elite athletes from the 2011 International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) World Championships: Inna Eftimova (Bulgaria) tested positive for synthetic Growth Hormone, while the samples of Nataliya Tobias (Ukraine) and Antonina Yefremova, (Ukraine) both contained traces of synthetic testosterone.

(Editor’s note: Inna Eftimova tested positive for synthetic Growth Hormone but not via biological passport analysis).

Six other athletes were also caught recently through biological passport analysis with four of them already admitting guilt: Abderrahim Goumri (Morocco), Iríni Kokkinaríou (Greece), Meryem Erdogan (Turkey), Svetlana Klyuka (Russia), Nailiya Yulamanova (Russia) and Yevgenina Zinurova (Russia).

There is also a new test for CERA, or continuous erythropoietin receptor activator, developed to treat anemia caused by kidney disease, which has resulted in a handful of users being caught, including the 2008 Olympic Games 1,500 meter gold medalist Rashid Ramzi of Bahrain.

As Table 1, 2 & 3 illustrate (WADA and IAAF data), one can see the enormous effort towards catching drug cheats through many thousands of drug tests, although total numbers fell in 2010.

Table 1: Number of samples analysed by all accredited laboratories around world & adverse findings as percentage of such tests, excluding those tests which may be allowed for therapeutic purposes

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2003

2008

2009

2010

Olympic Sports

113,559

202,067

187,029

180,584

Non-Olympics

37,651

72,548

90,899

77,683

Total

151,210

274,615

277,928

258,267

Adverse findings

 

 

 

 

Olympic Sports

 

0.98%

0.90%

0.90%

Non-Olympics

 

1.35%

1.56%

1.50%

Total

 

1.08%

1.11%

1.08%

Table 2: Number of IAAF tests since 1990 (selected years)

1990

1996

2000

2004

2005

2006

2007

2008

2009

2010

In-competition

740

851

848

997

1277

1258

1426

1590

1860

1844

Out-of-competition

80

1755

2062

2001

2127

1656

1851

1907

1820

1862

Total

820

2606

2090

2998

3404

2914

3277

3497

3680

3706

Table 3: 2010 IAAF tests –breakdown of urine and blood tests

Tests

Pre-Competition

In-Comp.

Out-of-Comp.

Total

Standard urine

 

 

 

 

2010

10

1082

1383

2475

2009

8

920

1140

2068

2008

0

655

1118

1773

Urine EPO

 

 

 

 

2010

35

762

434

1231

2009

95

940

577

1612

2008

74

935

705

1714

Total Urine

 

 

 

 

2010

45

1844

1817

3706

2009

103

1860

1717

3680

2008

74

1590

1823

3487

Blood screens

(haematological param)

 

 

 

 

2010

399

0

145

544

2009

780

0

149

929

2008

656

0

0

656

Blood tests – prohibited substances/methods

 

 

 

 

2010

46

0

14

60

2009

115

45

15

175

2008

0

0

41

41

Total blood tests

 

 

 

 

2010

455

0

159

604

2009

895

45

164

1104

2008

656

0

41

697

But there is still a long way to go given immense differences between nations in terms of testing regimes, despite the potential of biological passports and the UNESCO International Convention against Doping in Sport being adopted by 191 governments at the UNESCO General Conference in October 2005.

According to Dick Pound, the former chief of WADA, only a few drugs cheats were likely to be caught at the 2012 London Olympics with his estimate that around 10 per cent of athletes were still likely to be benefiting from drugs.

Pound also suggested that Jamaican athletes, who have dominated the sprint events at the London Olympics, should expect more visits by drugs testers. When asked by Reuters Television whether he was happy with the way Jamaica tested its athletes events, Pound stated “No, they are one of the groups that are hard to test, it is (hard) to get in and find them and so forth”.

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Pound also declared that, despite London having first class testing, he “would not expect many cases at the Olympics because if you test positive here you fail not a drugs test but an IQ test”.

Without accusing anyone, there may indeed be vast differences between national drug-testing regimes. While Australia leads the way with a very high rate of testing of athletes per population, the Washington Post recently reported that Jamaica’s team doctor is a member of track’s governing body’s anti-doping commission and that Jamaica and other Caribbean islands don’t have an independent anti-doping federation like the US Anti-Doping Association.

However, the Jamaica Anti-Doping Commission doping control officer Paul Wright refuted claims that the country doesn’t police drug use on the basis that JADCO administers tests up to five times a day for 40 weeks during the athletic season and carries out unannounced tests.

At the end of the day, it does not really matter how extensive testing is by international federations if athletes from all countries do not implement an effective random testing program at the national level. It is simply very advantageous for an athlete to stay at home in a nation with a poor random drug-testing regime to benefit from drugs with short half-lives that clear the system in a matter of a few days.

Even WADA (see Table 4) can only have a limited impact, despite its testing having become more targeted by looking more closely at changes in performance and abnormalities in previous tests.

Table 4: WADA Total Testing Numbers and data for selected sports 2009-2011

Tests

Total

Athletics

Aquatics

Cycling

Rowing

Weightlifting

Urine  2011

742

58

61

56

17

72

2010

1927

93

131

96

84

112

2009

1665

49

132

91

92

76

EPO 2011

366

38

47

56

17

13

2010

790

66

88

92

82

0

2009

690

28

63

85

90

0

Blood 2011

215

12

39

17

4

13

2010

240

23

25

26

14

0

2009

227

4

21

20

30

0

HGH 2011

186

12

38

7

0

22

2010

191

23

19

7

6

0

2009

175

4

21

19

18

0

Rich nations and major federations can also lift their game. During July 2012, the IOC medical commission chairman Arne Ljungqvist admitted the organisation had been slow in only deciding only in May to retest around 100 samples from the 2004 Athens Olympic Games given that past samples could only be stored for eight years.

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During December 2011, NBA players only agreed for the first time to allow offseason testing for performance-enhancing drugs from the start of the 2012-13 season, but only for a maximum of two tests each during its July-September break.

During July 2012, Australia’s Matildas (female national soccer team) rightfully expressed anger at not being at the Olympics.

With five North Korean players testing positive to anabolic steroids during the World Cup in July 2011, FIFA provided no drug testing during the Asian qualifying tournament where North Korea finished ahead of Australia.

And given my belief that transparency is necessary to analyse differences between national and international sporting federations, I am amazed that the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) has not published any information on the number of drug tests carried out on specific sports since 2005-06.

I had to write to ASADA to ask for information on the number of tests for individual sports, as indicated by general information displayed in Table 5.

Table 5: ASADA data sent to myself after my request.

 YEAR

SPORT

TESTS

2005-2006

 

 

 

 

Athletics

Cycling

Swimming

Weightlifting

Powerlifting

646

457

461

402

45

2006-2007

Athletics

Cycling

Swimming

Weightlifting

Powerlifting

558

576

523

319

100

2007-2008

Athletics

Cycling

Swimming

Weightlifting

Powerlifting

469

576

525

185

48

2008-2009

Athletics

Cycling

Swimming

Weightlifting

Powerlifting

384

425

493

211

160

2009-2010

Athletics

Cycling

Swimming

Weightlifting

Powerlifting

460

450

302

413

94

2010-2011

Athletics

Cycling

Swimming

Weightlifting

Powerlifting

517

524

302

503

91

ASADA notes that ‘The above figures include the testing of both able bodied and disabled athletes in the sports listed.

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In contrast to Table 5 which only provides general information of total tests for each sport, the UK, US and Russia all provide comprehensive details about the number of tests conducted on each sport. In the case of Russia, perhaps the best example of data provided of the three agencies, there is also a breakdown of various urine and blood tests for each sport.

And while ASADA stipulated to myself that user-pay figures are subject to confidentiality provisions and are considered commercial-in-confidence, I was amused to read a May 2011 newspaper article which disclosed that ASADA carried out almost 1000 tests on AFL players between November 2009 and October 2010, including for Human Growth Hormone and blood doping.

Simple logic, at least to myself and the few people I have asked, is that all relevant data should be available to scrutinise in regard to the number and type of tests per sport, country, and federation.

To conclude, drug-testing of sport still has some way to go despite massive improvements in recent years.

While it is reported that major pharmaceutical companies are working with anti-doping agencies by alerting them to experimental drugs that could have performance-enhancing side-effects, thus allowing WADA to develop tests before the drug is even on the market, there are already many HGH-releasing peptides on the black market not yet approved by the FDA.

There is also the prospect of gene doping, which could mean genetically manipulating cells to produce more EPO or manipulating the cells that regulate muscle mass.

Despite the ongoing catch-up game, and the immense potential of biological passports to catch cheats, it is essential that every measure possible is adopted to ensure that all participating sporting federations and nations act in a similar way. Perhaps they currently still do not.