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Doping: Alive and Well in the Tour But You Won’t Hear About It

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my argument for legalising doping in sport, aiming to focus resources on harm reduction rather than zero tolerance. Key safeguards in this approach are (1) doping carried out under the supervision of a doctor, and (2 ) checks on athletes to ensure they maintain normal physiological ranges of relevant parameters.

Many commentators consider this approach unrealistic. But as the world’s elite riders commence the Tour de France 2015, it appears that they will be riding under something very close to that vision.

In March this year, the Cycling Independent Reform Commission published a report into current doping practices. It concludes that doping is still prevalent, with estimates from those in the sport ranging from 20 – 90% of athletes participating in doping.

However, two mechanisms within anti – doping policy, the Athlete Biological Passport, and the Therapeutic Use Exemption, appear to be functioning effectively as regulators on doping behaviour: enhancing its safety and limiting its impact, without preventing its use outright.

The Biological Passport provides an individualised biological profile for each athlete, against which new tests are measured. Unusual variations are then a proxy for a failed drug test.

The Therapeutic Use Exemption enables a doctor to sign off on certain banned substances if the rider has a specific medical need.
The Biological Passport has, according to the Commission, reduced the level of doping:

“One rider confirmed to the Commission that following the introduction of the ABP [biological passport] he was told by his doping doctor to only conduct transfusions of a maximum of 150—200 ml blood, whereas the size of the blood bags previously used by USPS/Discovery Channel and Team Telekom/T-Mobile (according to the Reasoned Decision and Freiburg Report) amounted to 500 ml.”

“Gradually, 10-15% gains have become a thing of the past. It has been reported that increases in performance by microdosing EPO (as one form of continued doping) are now perhaps between 3-5%. This has had a significant impact on the doping landscape today because by reducing the performance gains, riders will start to believe that they can have a career riding clean. This is a key development in the fight against doping.”

Nevertheless, it does not amount to the ability to detect all doping:

“despite improvements to the science underlying the ABP, it is still possible for riders to micro-dose using EPO without getting caught. The Commission also heard that riders are confident that they can take a micro-dose of EPO in the evening because it will not show up by the time the doping control officers (“DCO” or “DCOs”) could arrive to test at 6am…”

It also allows riders to dope up to their biological passport levels (which of course may be set at a level when the athlete is already doping):

“Ironically, the ABP is also used by riders to avoid detection. Anti-doping experts noted that the fact that riders had access to their blood values, allowed them to ensure that they stayed within their limits when blood-doping”

The Therapeutic Use Exemption is in one way having the opposite effect: it creates a route for doping under (open) medical supervision, particularly to access corticoids, which are used for rapid weight loss:

“In one rider’s opinion, 90% of TUEs were used for performance-enhancing purposes.”

The doctors who are providing TUEs argue that their involvement increases rider safety:

“it [the doctor’s involvement in the doping] was necessary, otherwise a rider would have done it himself without medical supervision (which in any event many did). The doctor felt that this could have endangered the rider’s health, and thus the doctor felt compelled to assist the rider in order to protect him.”

The media reported the Commission’s findings as a failure, but there is little evidence in their report of harm to the riders, or to the sport at the current levels. As for the spirit of sport, the concerns of match fixing, largely ignored by the media, appear to be a far greater risk to the spirit of sport than supervised, capped levels of performance enhancement.

If we aimed for a rational framework around doping, where rules were built around athlete health, and the spirit of sport, and resources were targeted towards violations of those two principles, the current situation would, rightly, be considered a success.

But instead of building a rational, ethical framework built around safety, fairness and enforceability, WADA maintain that doping is cheating. And how do we know what counts as doping? Well, according to Dick Pound, former head of WADA, it is like pornography, you know it when you see it…

Instead of focussing on doping which is harmful to the sport or to the athlete, we proceed knowing full well that doping is widespread, but scapegoating the one who gets caught as part of a PR machine. Alberto Contador’s clenbuterol conviction was based on a finding so small that most laboratories would not have been able to detect it.

Instead of taking athlete health seriously, we wring our hands over the medically supervised drug taking to speed weight loss, but accept that eating disorders, often a fatal disease, are rife amongst cyclists.

Instead of comparing risks, we search for ever smaller doses of EPO, a comparatively safe enhancer when dosed correctly, but allow Tramadol, a strong pain killer, despite the fact it is believed to be the cause of crashes in the pelaton.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover was pornography to some; to others it was great art. It is not enough to know doping when you see it. There must be a rational criteria for rules.

The Commission were told “There is no room for ethics in sport”. If they want this to change, they should make room by creating an open, ethical framework for doping in sport, and enforcing it fairly and consistently, targeting resources against harmful practices.

What seems to have happened is that the UCI have tacitly accepted that physiological doping can’t be eradicated and have introduced rules to institutionalise it. But in parallel, they publicly declare wholehearted commitment to WADA’s crusade to enforce “zero tolerance.” The media appear to have gone along with this. There is very little discussion of doping in cycling broadcasts: no mention of Contador’s past convictions for doping. It is as if Armstrong never existed. When discussing Contador’s attempt to follow his Giro win with a win in the Tour, the TV presenter observed that this had not been done since 1998 when Marco Pantani won both. The presenter managed to keep a straight face and avoided mentioning Pantani’s own doping history. According to the commission, journalists who write about doping are denied access.

Froome is the only current GC contender who has admitted he appeared before the commission (most interviewees remain anonymous). He had previously complained of lack of testing on Tenerife ahead of the 2014 Tour de France, where he, Nibali and Contador were training.

Immediately prior to this Tour, Lars Boom of Team Astana was found to have low cortisol levels. This results when, amongst other things, steroids have been taken. This is not a doping violation, as it can also result from ill –health of the rider. However, Astana are a member of the Movement for Credible Cycling (MPCC), an organisation that teams can sign up to voluntarily, which imposes additional rules on its members. MPCC rules state that a rider must stand down for 8 days after a low cortisol level test, for health reasons. Instead, Boom has continued to race. MPCC has not reacted, other than saying that this rule is applied for health reasons, and not as an anti –doping measure (though it is not clear why this relevant to the MPCC’s view of the violation: is the rider’s health secondary to anti-doping?).

It is reasonable to conclude that doping is alive and well. You won’t see too many scandals. It is bad for business. There won’t be much mention of doping. But it is there, in perfectly reasonable form. What is interesting is, like in the recreational drugs debate, why we cannot have an open and rational discussion

Fanaticism dominates public ethics. Perhaps that is why cyclists say there is no place for ethics in cycling.

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