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

Andrew Sutherland Roar Guru

By Andrew Sutherland, Andrew Sutherland is a Roar Guru


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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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    The Crowd Says (10)

    • February 8th 2013 @ 8:27am
      Fred said | February 8th 2013 @ 8:27am | ! Report

      Biological passports are the way forward. But when the average career of a footballer is only a few years how much can it really help?
      A player about to be delisted would do almost anything to stay on the list, particularly if they have no back up plan

    • Roar Guru

      February 8th 2013 @ 8:41am
      Redb said | February 8th 2013 @ 8:41am | ! Report

      This is not just an AFL issue, the NRL probably have as much to fear as anyone and should be using blood passports.

      • February 8th 2013 @ 9:13am
        Fred said | February 8th 2013 @ 9:13am | ! Report

        AFL and NRL were both targeted. The report States that Australia’s two major sports were targeted.
        Reading between the lines of all the statements it sounds like league may have more clubs severely affected, whilst football may have players spread across more clubs.
        With football having alot more players I think we can also expect more players overall to be affected.

        • Roar Guru

          February 8th 2013 @ 2:29pm
          Andrew Sutherland said | February 8th 2013 @ 2:29pm | ! Report

          Redb and Fred,
          I must say I was a little surprised to discover that the NRL didn’t have a centralised testing programme for banned substances.

          • February 8th 2013 @ 7:10pm
            Fred said | February 8th 2013 @ 7:10pm | ! Report

            I was more surprised about the lack of a full-time integrity unit in the NRL.

    • Roar Guru

      February 8th 2013 @ 11:17am
      delbeato said | February 8th 2013 @ 11:17am | ! Report

      Andrew – you are absolutely correct that non-analytical methods have proven, by far, the most effective means of combating anti-doping. Lance loved dope testing so much that he continually referred to the tests as evidence of his innocence and even donated money to strengthen them. (while it’s unclear it was used for that purpose, you get the feeling Lance wouldn’t have been at all worried if it was).

      However, I feel you’re underselling biological blood profiling. As you acknowledge, it will detect fluctuations in blood parameters known to be associated with doping. The question of whether AFL players are doping or not appears to have been all but put to rest over the past couple of days. In asserting that blood profiling is “useless” in the AFL, you’ve relied on a statement by an AFL official – essentially reassuring everyone “there’s nothing to see here, everthing’s fine!”

      One of those things doesn’t add up, but I think you’ve picked the wrong one.

    • February 8th 2013 @ 1:33pm
      Mendip said | February 8th 2013 @ 1:33pm | ! Report

      The govt and the ACC have jumped the gun ostensibly to get people to fess up but more likely to take the heat of the govt with resigning Ministers, Obeid and Craig Thompson.

      Interesting that this article was in the Age but not the Sydney Morning Herald its sister paper. Silvester’s other articles have appeared in both papers.Frank Lowy lives in Sydney

      The NRL Ryan Tandy affair cant finally be resolved because its impossible to believe he was the only player involved. Both Rugby codes are hard to fix (even with exotic bets) without multiple player involvement.

    • February 8th 2013 @ 2:53pm
      St Mark W said | February 8th 2013 @ 2:53pm | ! Report

      Drug testing and ‘biological passports’ aren’t useless, a few have been caught and it does complicate things for drug cheets, but, clearly, these need to be heavily supplemented by proactive investigations and intelligence into drug use in sports.

      • February 9th 2013 @ 1:50pm
        Nathan of Perth said | February 9th 2013 @ 1:50pm | ! Report

        Agreed. The combined arms approach will be far more effective than either alone!

    • Columnist

      February 8th 2013 @ 5:57pm
      Kate Smart said | February 8th 2013 @ 5:57pm | ! Report

      Andrew, you’ve hit the nail on the head. It was through investigative measures that Armstrong was brought down, over scientific testing. I do support the biological passport program and scientific testing for banned substances. ASADA need greater investigative powers and I suspect this whole sordid affair will lead to them getting those powers.

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