The doping dilemma  //  Doping in sport: Impossible to control, time for a new mindset

16 Nov 2008 Posted by

The issue of doping in sport is (unfortunately) never too far away from the headlines, and as the year winds down, with little in the way of elite sport taking place around the world, it’s a chance to reflect on this controversial topic.

That was stimulated by this article, which details the extreme lengths that athletes will go to gain an advantage. The article, published in The Telegraph, explains how Professor Lee Sweeney, an expert in gene-transfer technology, has gained notoriety in the world of sport as a result of the possible application of his research to athletes. Sweeney was one of the scientists responsible for producing the “mighty mice” which are now famous as having super strength and size. In short, read “gene-doping”, and you understand why Sweeney is in such high demand.

It’s a fascinating article for a number of reasons. It gives a few examples of the lengths coaches and athletes will go to in order to gain a performance advantage, regardless of the risks. One coach offers $100,000 for the mouse-treatment, while another coach requests that his ENTIRE football team be genetically-modified. The fact that this is “only” at high school level is an indication of the extreme lengths that people will go to – how much more so for elite athletes?

These requests apparently come from all around the world, but none are from “big-name sports stars”, but usually come from up-and-coming athletes who want to make the big time. In response to this demand, Sweeney is now part of a gene-doping panel on the World Anti-Doping Agency, and will be conducting research to help WADA remain a step ahead of the drug cheats.

Can anti-doping really stay ahead of doping?

That is likely an over-ambitious goal, and elite sport has shown time and again that for the doping authorities to remain AHEAD of the dopers is a near-impossible mission. This year, the world of doping control celebrated when cyclists tested positive for CERA, a third-generation form of EPO, which cyclists were using under the impression that it was undetectable.

We covered that story, and saw how the test was developed thanks to collaboration between WADA and Roche, the pharmaceutical company that produced CERA. A convenient modification to the compound, in the form of a polyethylene glycol molecule, was the basis of the test. Ricardo Ricco, Emmanuelle Sella, Leonardo Piepoli, Stefan Schumacher, and Bernard Kohl have all tested positive for CERA in recent months, either during the Giro d’Italia, or the Tour de France. CERA was only available in Europe from the beginning of the year, and made its way quickly into the pro-peloton, where that afore-mentioned polyethylene-glycol molecule was thought to make it undetectable.

For once, however, the testers were a step ahead and had managed to develop a test for the drug, which threw up the surprises. More are expected, though one would think that as soon as the cyclists knew the test existed, they’d be off the drug. The point is that the window of opportunity is open for a short time only, and a more “strategic” (read sneaky) approach may be considered in future to catch more athletes!

Perhaps the larger question worth asking, however, is that if CERA is a drug that was used with the wrong impression that it was undetectable, how many more might exist where the athlete is actually right, and the drug is undetectable? The anti-doping authorities were quick to pat themselves on the back and hail this as a victory and a giant leap forward. They’d do well to remember that for every one drug they can test for, there may well be many others they cannot.

The premature celebrations don’t serve any purpose in the long run. Let’s not forget that had it not been for a jealous coach and an anonymously handed-in syringe, we might still be celebrating Dwain Chambers and Marion Jones‘ sprinting exploits…THG was only discovered “by accident” and thanks to coach-jealousy, and it blew open a can of worms so vast that it still seems to throw up revelations today. This should serve as a reminder to the authorities that they are nowhere near to winning the war, despite winning this particular battle.

The Telegraph article has some interesting insights in this regard. It leaves behind Professor Sweeney and his gene-doping requests, and talks about French scientists who have received similar visits and requests from athletes. Professor Philippe Moullier is currently working on gene-therapy to help patients with anemia (currently he works with monkeys), and he received a visit from ex-Tour de France cyclists who said they represented an anti-doping agency and wished to find out about his research.

Upon telling them that the research was only in its infancy, they said that the riders would not care, and that “there are kids in the Tour de France who would do anything just to have the most advanced technology.” That again highlights the intensity of the battle that anti-doping agencies are fighting.

The battleground is too vast to police using “classic” methods

But perhaps the most telling point, which is really my opinion, and is not really covered in the article, is that the battleground is too vast for agencies like WADA to try to police using “classical” means. The concept that one can appoint a small group of scientists to a doping panel, and have a very narrow hierarchy where a few experts are responsible for overseeing the strategy and tactics of WADA is a very outdated one.

Whether it’s a Professor Sweeney in Pennsylvania, or Professor Moullier in Nantes, or any one of the countless other scientists who are doing work on doping (either gene-doping or classical), it is simply impossible to monitor and manage all of them. For every Prof Sweeney who is drafted onto a doping panel, there could well be thousands of scientists who are not. Trying to control this simply cannot work in an archaic, pyramid structure which awards research funding to the select few who have the right contacts and obtain the right profile.

Flawed testing, but WADA’s blind eye fails to advance progress

This is a job for everyone, and WADA and every anti-doping agency would do well to remember this. Unfortunately, they rarely do. This is best demonstrated by the example from earlier this year, when a Danish research group, working independently, decided to “test the testers” and evaluate how effective WADA’s testing labs were in detecting EPO use. The results of that research are summarised in the figure below.

The study, in case you missed it, gave research volunteers EPO and then sent collected samples to two different WADA laboratories for testing. The result was that the labs did OK on the first round (during the period of “boosting”) with Lab A producing a 100% positive record, and Lab B getting 7 “suspicious” samples, but one negative. But during the maintenance phase, only two out of 24 samples tested positive for Lab A, while Lab B failed to find a single positive or suspicious sample.

In response to this result, which was actually published in a scientific journal, the Scientific Director of WADA said “I have never seen such a drastic situation as the one reported in this article”[cite]10.1152/japplphysiol.90529.2008[/cite].

Well, Dr Rabin and WADA, you have now. Because the paper is there for all to see. Yet WADA came out and defended their testing process, despite having been dramatically shown-up by an independent research group. Given the stakes in the battle and the enormity of the fight against doping, the Danish research helped show that the current anti-doping process is not foolproof (in fact, it’s seriously flawed), and dismissing it serves little purpose, other than to signal to athletes that your chances of getting caught are not as high as they should be. Therefore, use drugs, you might just get away with it.

Wada does, incidentally, do its own evaluation of the labs, but the results are never published, and no “data-sharing” policy exists. The organization is set up very much like the classic “business”, where a select few make all the decisions, control all the funding and pull all the strings, as they see fit. What this does (apologies for the management speak) is reduce the rest of the world (all 99.999%) to onlookers, rather than fostering what has been called a “knowledge economy”, where everyone shares in data and expertise is maximized. Tall, narrow pyramids are not the way to fight the anti-doping battle, because the “opposition”, the dopers, are diffuse, spread out and impossible to control.

The Wikinomics of anti-doping

Rather, the work of EVERYONE should be embraced, in a kind of “wikinomics” fashion, where the sharing of information, in a fully-transparent system should be promoted. The “wikinomic” concept, incidentally, holds that “mass collaboration” may hold the answer to solving the kinds of problems faced by anti-doping authorities. It is the title of an excellent book, well worth reading, and a particularly interesting website.

I really do beleive that an astronomical collaboration approach to the fight against doping is required – the details will be difficult to work out, but only when thousands come together to pull in the same direction, can we expect the testers to catch the dopers. The first step should be to make fully transparent the blood profiles of riders, the processes followed and the funding process. Of course, people will gasp and balk at this notion, just as they would for any other example of mass collaboration (read the book “Wikinomics” for some of them).

But the fight against doping will only be won when far more people are involved on the side of the testers. Currently, no incentive exists for those people to collaborate, but the incentive to cheat is huge – $100,000 for experimental methods, for example.


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