Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Everything You Wanted To Know About Doping For Sports

Not exactly everything but I promised a long post about doping back during the Tour and, in the midst of all the controversy, decided to let it play out for a while. Currently, what we have is a quagmire of points, counterpoints, accusations, suspensions, and court cases. Basically, the situation is a mess.

I'm going to provide a lot of links. If you're not up for reading, I'll also summerize. But if you're truly interested in the details of sports doping I encourage you to read through everything. Particularly these LA Times articles:

Cyclist Blames Flawed Tests (on Tyler Hamilton)

The Innocent Often Pay A High Price

Are Appeals Futile?

The Times stories scrutinize the testing processes and many flaws are exposed. Tyler's case is particularly interesting because the testing procedure used to "bust" him had only recently been established and not really substantiated. Furthmore, it was done by an Australian university on a $50,000 grant--hardly enough money to come up with an iron clad testing procedure. At the Olympics, where Hamiltion first tested positive, many officials had protested the use of the testing procedure saying "it's not ready for prime time." Furthermore, the way his positive test was revealed would not yield him any performance enhancement. The case is even more bizarre because only one other positive test has ever been made and this happened during the same race as his second positive (the Vuelta a Espana). That rider, Santi Perez, has claimed he was innocent but said he didn't fight it bascially because he couldn't afford it. This last bit is not in that article but similar cases are revealed in the other piece.

The next two articles basically analyze the problems in the system, how doping cases can happen with over the counter medications and result in bans, mainly against athletes that can't afford to fight them.

"'It wiped out my life savings and my college savings,' Zach Lund, 27, a world-class skeleton sled racer from Salt Lake City, said of his effort to clear himself of doping charges."

We know that athletes are doping but more and more it looks as though WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency), and particlularly its chairman, Dick Pound, are on a bit of a witch hunt. In a doping seminar I attended last year I was particularly un-impressed by the answers I got about problems within the system.

"If athletes dope, we will catch them," was the message given. However, I--and many others in attendance--know of athletes who've doped and not been caught. And there are many cases of others who have not been doping and have been caught. Clearly, we've got issues.

Public Perception

When George Bush claimed that doping in sports was one of the major problems in our society he was clearly blowing a smoke screen at the public to cover our problems in the Middle East. The problem is that most people don't know this, creating an image that scientists are creating Fraken-athletes in order to achieve all-important victory. This could not be more wrong and it's created an alarmist tone to which society is forced into a reactionary state. Orgainizations like WADA are then forced to get "results", even if they are wrong. Who ends up getting hurt, more often than not, are the "little guys" like the amateur athletes in obscure sports who can't afford to defend themselves.

For example, no one has had more doping accusations surrounding them than Lance Armstrong. A lesser-funded athlete would have little chance against such pressure but the Armstrong machine--which is vast--has been able to deflect all criticism and win again and again in court. Armstrong himself is probably worth more money than WADA's entire budget and they probably stand little chance in court against his lawyers.

Who doesn't, however, are athletes like Rachel Burke:

"For people who have never had to deal with something like this, it's hard to grasp what it takes away from you," says Rachael Burke, 23, a swimmer at the University of Virginia, whose urine sample turned up in May 2004 with a trace of boldione, an obscure steroid, possibly from a contaminated nutritional drink. Burke had never had a positive result in any other test in more than a decade of competitive swimming.

"You have no idea what happened," she recalled in an interview. "You have no control over the fact that they are going to announce to the entire public that Rachael Burke, this girl that everyone has seen grow up in the spotlight, has tested positive for steroids. The next day, you have to walk on the pool deck and people are saying, 'I wonder if that's why you were so good when you were 8 years old.' You're accused and convicted without a chance to defend yourself."

What we really need to understand is her point about an 8 year old's talent. 90-some-odd percentage of an athlete's ability they are born with. Doping is a very very small piece of the pie. Most of us could dope to the gills and never even hope of riding in the Tour de France. Athletes are born, then made. But mostly born. It's estimated that the advantage an athelete can gain by doping is 3%. An athlete like Armstong is born with more than twice the average V02 Max of the average person. (For example, he crushed the field in his first race as a kid, when he certainly wasn't doping.) Other factors, like aerobic capacity and efficiency can be increased to 12% or more through training. Diet can further add to this. Therefore, doping is a problem in that it's an unfair advantage over similarly-talented athletes who've already maximized their talent and nutrition, but it's hardly one of the greatest problems in our society.

To understand doping on its most basic level, here's an article I wrote:

Drugs, Food, and Supplements

Operation Puerto

On the eve of the Tour de France, Operation Puerto was revealed to the world, which led to accusations of doping against 58 pro riders and many riders being banished from the race, including the four favorites. None of these riders competed in the Tour but, over time, almost all of Puerto's evidence has been discounted. Still, many of these riders are under fire and have had their careers damaged.

Cycingnews Puerto Archive

This is one of the craziest sports scandals of all time. For Americans, imagine half the teams getting kicked out of the NFL playoffs and banned to two seasons for doping, only to be reinstated in July because the evidence was un-sound. This is essentially what has happened. Would you say there is a problem with the system? Um, likely.


Adding to the irony was that the eventually Tour winner was then kicked out for doping. And after the fact as well. His appeal looked absurd at first but has picked up steam, and mainly because they've proven that the lab used poor procedure in handling his urine sample. If nothing else, his case has further proven that the situation is a mess. WADA does not catch all dopers. From scuttlebutt ones hears at the fringe of sports--where I reside--it appears that they catch very few offenders. It's also clear that "catch" quite a few non-offenders.

The Solution

Here's where you've got me. I truly have no idea. It's a problem in sports, for sure. But is it worth all our time and effort to uncover? I don't know. Here's what I do know.

Doping ain't what it once was. Back in the day of back alley steroids and random EPO injections it was dangerous. Nowadays, it's generally doctor administered and could be argued, as was the case in the Puerto incident, that's it makes the athletes healthier. Back alley abuses among amateurs still exists but, let's fact it, it always will. These people will take anything at all to enhance performance and don't really care about health implications. And you can kill yourself, quite easily, with perfectly legal supplements and foods if you try hard enough. For example, I deal with clients who OD on junk like Red Bull, et al, regularly and all they're trying to do is look good at a family reunion.

Doping doesn't make athletes. Like I said before, you can only improve so much. If you didn't run away from all the kids at grade school, no amount of dope is going to help you win even a high school championship, must less get you to the Olympics.

Dope is expensive. Down in the alley they can afford meth, bathtub anavar and other goofy concoctions but nobody at your local cat 4 crit is doing EPO. The reason, it's about a grand per dose. Only very well funded athletes can afford scientific doping.

A simple solution is to take the money out of sports. This would take the doctors out. Once the doctors were gone we could easily control doping because back alley doping won't avoid detection. This, however, is not going to happen anytime soon.

Another possibility is to legalize doping and limit spending on it. Teams would then have to record what they used and when and all abuses and health problems could be revealed. It would also limit the temptation of school kids to dope becaue they'd see that it doesn't change an athlete all that much. While not perfect (because it can be cheated--what can't?), this option might be the most realistic. But when the President of the United States is calling sports doping more important than a war in the Middle East, who's going to stand up and make that call?

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