In studying how sprint training relates to swimming for some upcoming posts I looked over The Race Club’s website – the Club itself a training facility for sprint excellence founded by the Olympian father and son swimming duo of Gary Hall and Gary Hall Junior. While I haven’t acquired any information about sprint training techniques (not surprising as The Race Club charges fees for its camps and clinics) I’ve learned Gary Hall Jr. and I share similar backgrounds, some similar beliefs, and even better that he and his father are pretty good writers. Consequently you’ll now find The Race Club listed in my Swimming Links section. A recent post of his, though, took me a little aback with its outspokenness; and no, it’s not a case of the kettle calling someone black. Gary Hall Jr. simply goes after a lot bigger fish. He’s questioned the phenomenal achievements of a “really nice guy” (RNG) by raising the possibility of him being guilty of doping, something I admit is fair enough because I’ve also talked about this possibility with a couple of friends. But Hall’s actually gone charging on in and named him before a doping incident linked to him is closed. Those who know or have read about Junior won’t be surprised by this of course. You don’t win the number of Olympic gold sprint medals Gary Hall Jr. has by being tentative now do you? It should be noted for the record that RNG (who has not yet been officially identified) failed a drug test indicating the presence of banned drugs but was excused by ASADA (Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority) for unknown reasons. This decision was challenged by FINA, requiring ASADA to conduct a just recently completed review of the case which saw the original decision upheld. So now FINA’s appealing the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). There’s plenty of room for speculation. Junior proposes RNG has been doping over a long period of time, perhaps even for most of his career, to a level just under the point which would call for sanction, only to be caught out after returning from an extended absence due to injury and illness by a recent change in the acceptable levels of testosterone. He complains the allowable limit for testosterone was set far too high at 6:1, this being the ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone more commonly known as the T/E ratio; arguing if a normal healthy young individual’s ratio is only 1:1 then a 6:1 or 4:1 ratio allows unscrupulous individuals to tailor their doping regimes to keep under the legal limit (the T/E ratio does not discriminate between sexes but females typically possess only a fifth of the absolute amount of testosterone possessed by males).
The problem here keys on the use of normal, because when you get into the elite ranks of swimming normal starts to become less and less relevant. There are some who have natural testosterone ratios of 4:1 or even higher – it’s one of the reasons they’re as competitive as they are. Throw in the fact there are several known ways to naturally boost testosterone levels, ranging from alcohol consumption to the use of birth control pills and recent sex, then add in the inherent variability of the tests themselves, and determining just who is doping and who isn’t becomes considerably more blurry. For these reasons when testing was first instituted the ratio was established at 10:1. After studies showed the methods were sufficiently rigorous it was dropped to 6:1, and then in 2005 it was reduced still further to the current 4:1. Contrary to popular belief, while this ratio is considered in determining a positive result, it is used more as a screen for more complex and conclusive tests. Experience has shown a sample with a T/E ratio of 20:1 or ‘better’ will reveal doping more than 95% of the time¹ but the confirmation rate drops as the ratio declines. A 10:1 T/E ratio sees only 31% confirmed positive and the recent reduction in the threshold ratio from 6:1 to 4:1 has resulted in only an additional 0.3% increase in adverse findings (3 out of 1,000). Having the first sample fail doesn’t mean a positive test but it does, however, prompt the testing of the athlete’s “B” sample to verify the initial finding. Only if the second test confirms a higher than allowable amount of T does a positive test officially result. Still no reason to panic, especially if the test results from the two samples are only a little over the allowable 4:1 ratio because you’ll remember we can expect many in this particular population will have naturally high T/E ratios and there are a lot of ways the level can be boosted naturally. A confirmatory second test should therefore be carried out which examines the carbon isotope ratios of the byproducts of testosterone metabolism, known as metabolites, to determine whether the testosterone was made by the body ('endogenous T') or came from a man-made source ('exogenous T'). Four different metabolites are tested and an abnormal result in just one of them will confirm the positive result (i.e. the sample contains manufactured testosterone). It’s the finding of man-made testosterone in the sample which provides the actual evidence of doping. If there’s no evidence of exogenous testosterone then regardless of how high the T/E ratio the athlete will have an excellent chance to be cleared on review – despite a confirmed positive result of testosterone in excess of allowable limits.
So you see while Gary Hall Jr.’s hypothesis of how RNG could have been cheating has merit it is also quite possible to have a positive result and see it reversed by the responsible authority. In fact, rather than saying the ratio is too lax, many are arguing it is far too narrow knowing what we do about the natural variability in human testosterone levels. Dissenters believe, beyond just being a waste of money, that the constant stream of false positives resulting from the current 4:1 T/E ratio will eventually cause the general public to lose confidence in the testing system. Perhaps the way to go is to jump directly to carbon isotope testing in certain random situations to prevent ‘doping to limit’, but practically speaking the present standard is already pretty close to that. RNG didn’t need his medical team to screw up and not adjust his doping program to the new standards (a very doubtful hypothesis); at his hypothetical elevated levels a slight unforeseen fluctuation in his testosterone, maybe too much beef for dinner, could have been enough to get him flagged for carbon isotope testing. Nowadays the margin for error is much too tight for somebody to hope get away with boosting testosterone levels over a long period of time without eventually raising some flags. But if RNG was cheating and caught as Junior suggests his medical ‘advisors’ may still be responsible for the mess: more knowledgeable cheats are now believed to be using animal based testosterone preparations because of the similarities their carbon isotope ratios have to endogenous T. Oy vey.
¹I have to point out this means upwards of five percent of those tested actually had naturally occurring T/E ratios of 20:1 or more – an amazing ratio which prompts the obvious question – just how do we get invited to their parties? On a more serious note the T/E ratio is known to be also affected by ethnicity; age; circadian rhythm; training and competition; diet; nutritional supplementation; environmental factors; enzyme deficiencies; decreased epitestosterone excretion; menstruation; pregnancy; other hormonal therapy; consumption of meat from animals supplemented with anabolic steroids; polycystic ovary syndrome (a common endocrine disorder); and other pathologic medical conditions (source: Inferences About Testosterone Abuse Among Athletes).