How to Win the War on Drugs in Sport

Drug scandals again tarnish the Tour de France. Last week three riders, Spaniards Manuel Beltrain and Moises Duenas and Italian climber Riccardo Ricco, winner of two mountain stages, failed tests for the banned performance enhancer EPO. This year has seen fewer spectacular expulsions, but of course the game is not over.

Does this mean the drug testers are winning the war on drugs? It might. But it might also mean that cyclists and their doctors are getting better at evading testing. A recent BBC investigation supports the latter conclusion. WADA labs have been proven to fail to pick up positive results. There are 80 copy-cat drugs, produced in China, India and Cuba, which are difficult to detect. And labs apparently collude with doctors to “exchange knowledge” on testing procedures. Expert Professor Bengt Saltin, a leading anti-doping expert and a former winner of the IOC Olympic Prize, the highest honour in sports science, said

"I would think that most of the medal winners and many in the finals of endurance events – there is a big risk for them having used EPO."

So despite the numbers of athletes being prosecuted for EPO declining by two-thirds between 2003 and 2006, Professor Saltin concluded this was due to evasion, not a reduction in use.

"The reason that I am still a little bit upset with the whole situation is that I have seen too many suspicious samples that are clearly abnormal. Athletes are getting away with it. Look how many have been caught for EPO misuse recently."

The response is predictable: widen testing critieria. Experts have suggested that urine samples should be tested for any evidence of naturally produced EPO. If there is none, it should be classed as suspicious because the use of artificial EPO for doping causes the body’s own production to shut down. These experts also call for testing of blood profiles as well as the urine. An analysis of the number of young red blood cells can also indicate doping.

Is this a solution? No. It will simply escalate the war to the next level. History has proven the ability of athletes and their doctors to ingeniously evade detection. We will never win the war on doping.

Perversely, if these experts’ claims are correct, and many athletes are doping and getting away with it, it may be that is is the expulsion of the few who happen to get caught, if nearly all are doping, that is unfair. It is cheating to break the rules but it is unfair to be expelled when one has gained no advantage.

The solution to the war on drugs is to get smart. There is a blindingly obvious solution to the EPO problem that is cheap and 100% effective. Give up testing for EPO! If we are worried about the effects of increasing the number of red blood cells, then simply set a safe limit, like 50% of the blood volume as the World Cycling Federation does. Expel athletes above that limit, or get them to reduce by blood donation, and allow everyone below the limit to compete, no matter whether they got to that level naturally, by altitude training, by using a hypoxic air machine or by taking EPO. That test – the haematocrit – is safe, cheap, effective and reliable.

This is not admitting defeat. It is simply accepting that technology has changed the way in which competitive sport can be performed. We can’t turn the clock back and give back our knowledge. But we can adapt to a changing world, one that we have changed. Cycling and sport in general would benefit from a more rational approach to the regulation of the use of drugs in sport.

It is only a matter of time before we adopt a more liberal, rational and realistic approach to doping. The only real alternative is to abandon professional competitive sport altogether.

Further articles, media, audio and video on the use of performance enhancing drugs in sport

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