A no-good week for doping in sport

07 Jun 2015 Posted by
It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week for doping in sport, with a one-two punch delivered in the form of the Nike Oregon Project allegations, and then the UCI/WADA suspension of the biological passport case against Roman Kreuziger.

Both cases, for subtly different reasons, really undermine the credibility of the sport and the anti-doping efforts, because they send out a message that testing cannot be believed, and thus performances cannot be trusted (not necessarily in that order either).

Over the course of the three days of these stories breaking, I posted a few quick thoughts on The Science of Sport Facebook page, but since many may miss things amidst the clutter of social media, I thought I’d repost them here, in a series of four semi-connected brief thoughts.

So here, in reverse order (most recent at the top), are brief thoughts on:

  1. Farah and proving innocence with transparency
  2. The Kreuziger case and credibility of the bio-passport
  3. The legal loophole
  4. The grey area and search for every advantage

1. Farah and proving innocence with transparency (posted 7 June)

So Mo Farah has withdrawn from the Birmingham Diamond League meeting, citing emotional and physical fatigue from a week of questioning over the Nike Oregon Project allegations. Two thoughts:

1. He should try wearing the yellow jersey at the Tour de France. It may not be fair, but this is where the sport is – skepticism is the default setting, and reports with credible sources turn that into cynicism.

2. If, as Farah suggested at said draining press conference, Salazar & co are serious about clearing their names and proving their innocence, a first step might be to make public the doping control forms (if this is possible, not sure of the legal matters) that athletes complete when they are being tested.

On these forms, there is a space for declaration of all supplements and medical products that are not banned, but which may require a TUE or which may later become important in the doping control process. Making this public (rather than the blood values Farah promised) would be more effective, because so many of the allegations concern the inappropriate (and not always illegal, just unethical) use of medication.

That said, nothing will “prove innocence” – this is the catch-22, but some explaining will go a long way to justifying actions and refuting claims, because the other side lacks proof too.

Oh, and finally, it does strike me as strange that Farah kept saying he would sit down and talk to Salazar, as though they had been ambushed by the allegations. The fact is, the BBC and ProPublica have a very strict policy when reporting, which requires them to contact all parties to inform them of what is being investigated and written, and to allow a response. The wheels on this have been turning for weeks, so it is inconceivable to me that Salazar and Farah were blindsided by the documentary and report earlier this week. When he says he is going to be “talking to people and asking questions”, that doesn’t ring true.

Still, I await the explanations promised, because they may move sentiment (in one of two directions, of course).


2.  The Kreuziger case and the credibility of the biological passport (posted 6 June)

It’s been a horrible, very bad, no good week for the biological passport. Some brief thoughts:

First, the Panorama documentary came out, with journalist Mark Daly putting himself on EPO, getting a sizable performance boost, but beating detection. This is the second time in a month that the media have exposed the biological passport as being too “blunt” to detect EPO doping. True, the level of “proof” is weak – these are hardly controlled studies – but the biopassport exists in a real world where perceptions matter and these news stories dent trust in the concept. And more tellingly, there are controlled studies showing similar “blindspots (more on this shortly)”.

Because so much of the biopassport effect relies on its deterrent value, the perception created by these media trials in particular do more harm than even a scientific study might do. To use an analogy, if you saw a news report saying that 90% of all the speeding cameras in your city were faulty for 21 hours a day, would you be more inclined to risk speeding?

Because of this “perception-deterrent” property, it’s not surprising that any reports challenging the veracity of the passport must be met with a confident dismissal. You hardly expect a response of “Ah, you got us, you’re right!”, did you?

The second blow came yesterday, when the biopassport case of Roman Kreuziger was dropped by the UCI and WADA. The case was for what were described by many, including Brian Cookson, as large abnormalities in his blood values.

The UCI and WADA are not explaining their reasons, other than to say that new information was obtained. No further comment is expected.

The problem with that is that the media, already beating down the door of the passport with their own “trials”, are now covering a case where these “large abnormalities” are still not enough to force a sanction.

So were the abnormalities not actually that large (oops), or does new information explain what were genuinely strange values without doping?

Either way, the problem is that the ability of the biopassport to detect and sanction (because one without the other is worthless) doping is undermined.

The reason this happens is because we try to set a standard of detection that minimizes the chance of false positives. The trade off between false positives and detecting doping is the source of these blindspots and makes the tool too blunt against the sophistication of doping (and let’s get real – what the BBC did was not exactly rocket science).

However I suspect that this is part of why the top cyclists are never caught but the journeymen are.

In any event, it leaves the biopassport in a challenge for its credibility, because on two fronts – PR/media and legal – it’s had some holes punched in it.

I don’t believe this makes it useless, and I know that very good scientists with the right intentions are working to improve it and progress is being made. But a “win” would be nice, and preferably a big one.


3. The legal loophole (posted June 4)

So here’s something interesting…chatting to Dr Jeroen Swart, respected sports physician & coach, and he points out that the use of corticosteroids (like prednisone that Galen Rupp is alleged to have used) is prohibited ONLY IN-COMPETITION, with TUEs for certain cases.

The glucocorticoids are not listed as “Prohibited at all times” (see screen grabs from the WADA prohibited list below – the list of prohibited at all times list is on the left, and in-competition is on the right), which means out-of-competition, you don’t even need a TUE, there’s no restriction.

In other words, athletes can use corticosteroids, with all their benefits, until about a week before competition, and they wouldn’t even need a TUE for it.

Screen Shot 2015-06-04 at 11.37.14 AMScreen Shot 2015-06-04 at 11.36.58 AM






I’d never made the conscious link until this discussion, but it’s really bizarre that the restriction (via TUE) of these substances only applies to competition, and not training. Better recovery, harder training, greater benefit, and race clean.

And wait, there’s more – the same applies to stimulants, so people can use them in training, get the benefit, and then race after a ‘clear-out’ phase. Obviously, there’s an ethical issue here, but the WADA list doesn’t cover them out of competition. Loophole…

It seems so ludicrous to me, I feel I’m missing something, but the WADA list invites this approach.


4. There is an enormous grey area, and people WILL push into it (posted June 4)

If you live in a world of elite sport where 0.5% is the difference, and you invest basically 24 hours of your day trying to find that 0.5% (you’re either training or aggressively recovering), then the transition from legal to illegal is too tempting for many to avoid.

One reason is that it’s not as though a neon sign and a line in the sand announces “Legal stops here. Keep going for illegal”. As the thyroid medication and TUE issues show, the grey area that precedes obvious doping is very wide. If you are aggressively pursuing the “marginal gains”, it’s only natural to venture into the grey.

Then secondly, there is bound to come a point where you realize that all the science in the world – the cryotherapy, the compression socks, the underwater treadmills, even the altitude training camps – is worth only a fraction of what doping might offer.

It’s like getting down on your hands and knees searching for the pennies, while there’s a $100 note lying on the table. The ambitious, driven athlete or coach is going to find it very difficult to ignore that note, because taking it is too easy, and the punishment is a) not that likely to be faced, and b) not that severe if it is.

The fact that some have acted against this – I think here of Steve Magness in particular – should be applauded. It’s courageous and ethical in a sporting climate where that is far too rare.

If you’ve followed cycling for years, nothing new there, but Salazar and the NOP raise the same issues, all over.