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The Charade of Blood Dope Testing

by Julian Savulescu

The latest weapon in the arsenal of doping tests is the blood passport. It aims to track the red blood cell count over the last year. Changes during competition indicate doping.

Of course it is doomed to fail. The reason is red blood cells vary from individual to individual, and the count varies within an individual over time. One way to get around the dope test is to take small amounts of doping agents during the year.  Another way would be to donate some of your own blood after the test and have it retransfused prior to a later test. Even if these methods fail, you can be sure cyclists will find a way around it.

As I have said for the last 10 years, there is a simple solution. Measure the one end point that cant be manipulated – the red cell count during competition – and set some safe maximum level, say 50% of total blood volume. This is cheap and reliable. Cyclists could dope themselves from 46% to 50%, using whatever means, and everyone would start on a level playing field which is easily, cheaply and reliably enforceable. The blood doping scandals would evaporate over night.

The current blood doping tests are a charade. We know and the International Cycling Union knows that most if not virtually all cyclists are doping. A few have to be caught and made examples of, to reassure the public that the war on doping is being effectively prosecuted, but they could never eliminate all the stars from the Tour. It would ruin the sport.

It is the inexperienced, stupid and extremely unlucky who happen to be caught.

When will we take the only rational approach to blood doping and allow it to safe levels?

[I will discuss these issues on the BBC World Service at 1pm, July 2]

[For further discussion of doping in sport see our Drugs in Sport Debate]

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