Doping: under the spotlight

Posted on 26 November 2015

Doping: The Athlete’s Dilemma

Doping has been consistently in the headlines over the past few months, starting with The Sunday Times and German broadcaster, ARD's allegations of widespread doping in international athletics; then the announcement of retrospective charges by the IAAF in relation to the reanalysis of samples from the 2005 and 2007 IAAF World Championships. Next, the announcement of positive doping results in samples provided by two Kenyan Athletes at this year's IAAF World Championships in Beijing, then the comments from the UK's National Anti-doping Agency that rugby is particularly at risk from doping, coincident with the start of the IRB Rugby World Cup in England. Most recently, the Russian track and field team has been suspended from international competition over allegations of an organised national doping programme – this is of particular significance as the country is due to host the next FIFA World Cup in 2018.

These events highlight how doping control in sport is likely to be an issue in developing countries over the next decade. Major international championships draw attention to particular sports and their host countries. Following Russia's exposure, no doubt Brazil will be under the spotlight ahead of hosting the 2016 Olympic Games. Effective doping control will be an important part of the perceived success of these events.

The positive results by the Kenyan athletes and the recent allegations  about Russia highlight that any developing nation that tastes sporting success needs a robust doping control model to avoid its achievements being tainted by the suspicion of doping, whether justified or not.

In order to understand the position these athletes under question are in, imagine you are an elite athlete. You’ve just missed out on a medal in an Olympic track final which you’ve been training all your life for. The winning athletes are doing a lap of honour, whilst you stand alone on the track. You find yourself wondering whether those who beat you have been secretly using banned performance enhancing substances and your mind moves to the hard training you will need to do for the next Olympics in four years’ time. What would you do?  If the use of performance enhancing substances is widespread, and the tests to detect them are of limited use, do you use them and risk a lengthy ban if caught, or  stay clean and perhaps never win a medal that you may otherwise have won in a fair contest?

Back in June, the BBC’s Panorama investigation "Catch Me If You Can" made allegations of unethical practice and perhaps doping in relation to the Nike Camp Oregon Project (these allegations are denied by all involved in the Project). From an anti-doping law perspective, there were two particularly topical aspects to the programme.

The first is the increased sanctions under the revised 2015 WADA Code, which came into force on 1 January of this year. A key change was to raise the usual sanction for the core doping offences from a two to a four year ban. If the most serious allegations made by Panorama - that athletes and coaches had in their possession testosterone containing supplements and that these were given to athletes - were to be proven they could carry a four year ban for the athletes involved. The likely charges would be use or attempted use of a prohibited substance (Article 2.2) or possession of a prohibited substance (Article 2.6).

The second topical aspect is the ease with which journalist Mark Daly was allegedly able to beat WADA’s flagship biological passport test using micro-doses of self-administered erythropoietin ("EPO").  EPO is a protein naturally produced in the kidneys that controls red blood cell production. Artificially increasing EPO levels raises red blood cell concentration in the blood and improves aerobic exercise performance (key for endurance events). Using EPO purchased over the internet from China, and without the expert medical team an elite athlete would have, Mark Daly was able to increase his aerobic athletic performance by 7% in 7 weeks - a huge amount in the context of elite sport.

The biological passport tracks an athlete’s body biochemistry over time. It is designed to identify changes in biochemical parameters that track the effect of doping and therefore catch a doping athlete even after the banned substance has left their system (for EPO it would track red blood cell parameters). If Mark Daly's experiment is more than a fluke then regulators may be further behind in the race to keep sport clean than they would like to admit. Academic psychology tells us that it is the perceived likelihood of being caught, rather than the length of the sentence if caught, that most dissuades us from rule breaking. Thus, if the biological passport can be broken with ease, it may perhaps encourage those on the edge of doping, for whatever reason, to do so.

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