So Lance has finally done his “you know when I said I had never doped?” mea culpa and the cycling world can, as they say, move on. Because things are different now, are they not? We have the much-acclaimed blood passport and a testing regime so stringent that athletes who seem genuinely clean name it as the worst part of their job. For those unfamiliar with the craziness that is an out-of-competition doping test, a person turns up at your door unannounced and you cannot leave his site until you have a cup of fresh, organic urine. If your bladder proves not up to the job, no problem – the tester will sit there with you while you go about your daily business until it is. Once the grand moment arrives, he/she has to make absolutely sure that what enters the cup is indeed what exits your body. And there’s only one way to do that. Lovely! The system, though, seems to be working – the drop in the overall standard of the cycling peloton seems to be the best indicator of this and the whole culture is widely perceived to have changed.
Unfortunately, though, I still find it difficult to be optimistic. Indeed, I would question whether the war on drugs in sport generally (or outside it for that matter) is even winnable. Testing has indeed reached a new level of sophistication with the biological passport, which essentially involves athletes establishing a baseline blood and urine profile that can then be compared to their results in the future. The idea is that the common criticism of testing – that performance enhancing substances and techniques always come first and the (often imperfect) tests for them second – is invalidated as what is being tested for is changes brought about by substances rather than the substances themselves. What it effectively says is – if you ran 10 seconds for the 100m last season but can do it in 9.6 this season, you’re a cheat, you’re on something even if we don’t know what it is.
But the biological passport has issues, foremost among which is the issue of false positives. Sure, if the example above were to happen, or if I became an overnight bodybuilding sensation you would probably be justified in being hugely suspicious. But where do you draw the line? What percentage increase of x in your blood is impossible without banned substances? Go too conservative and you miss some cheats, too strict and you make false accusations.
I would also suggest that the basic problem of athletes always being one step ahead remains. And even if, as has been argued, any cheating that is occurring is at least becoming less severe than it once was, that doesn’t really seem either here or there – it could be the thing that makes all the difference and the principle remains the same.
The passport also seems to recall an older test used in cycling to prevent excessive use of EPO, by measuring levels of hermatocrit, the percentage of red blood cells in blood. If this was above 50, riders would not be allowed to race that day. All this meant was that all riders’ used EPO until their hermatocrit levels were just under the limit. The biological passport could perhaps be similarly circumvented – if you know what your acceptable limit is, what’s stopping you doping until you reach it?
The whole question of banned substances also seems to become rather arbitrary at times. How do you even decide what substances are banned in the first place? If we are to ban substances based on whether they ‘artificially’ enhance performance, what of the so-called three Cs (carbohydrate, caffeine and creatine – a substance that considerably improves maximal strength)? There is no such thing as a level playing field – better-funded athletes have better facilities and thus superior access to ‘natural’ performance enhancers. Is there really all that much difference between an EPO injection and innocent Alistair Brownlee sleeping in an altitude tent?
I can’t offer any definitive answer. My instinctive reaction is to just say no holds barred – if athletes are willing to put their health at risk for their sport, that’s their decision. Many already do – there is nothing particularly natural about training for hours on end each day whilst following a diet that is, in many cases, sport specific but not necessarily balanced. Pro cyclists are a case in point – mere skeleton from the waist upwards, ingesting huge quantities of sugary energy formulas, spending hours on end on the same repetitive motion – its hardly ‘healthy’. Legalising performance enhancers also appeals to the perfectionist in me. One common misconception about these substances is that they allow athletes to be lazy and let the drugs win the race for them. The truth in many cases is the opposite – the drugs speed up recovery allowing athletes to train harder and longer. In this sense they’re not magical pills in the same way as ectasy tablets are but targeted and specific ‘dietary supplements’.
There is another part of me though, that recoils at this idea. What of the young, desperate and impressionable athlete who thinks his only path to a better life is through sport? Or the hardcore amateur, ruining local races by using substances that no one else has the motivation or money to?
I’d be interested to know everyone else’s thoughts on this one. Is the nuclear option right? Is the system OK as it is? Is professional sport inherently unfair anyway, given differences in funding, climate, genetics etc.? Cheers!