Sunday, July 13, 2008

Fair and Balanced

In my post “It’s Getting Surreal Out There” I wrote about the recent improvement in swimming world records and speculated as to the reasons why the sudden lurch forward. The queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach it may be because illegal doping has become commonplace, however, was hard to ignore. To deny this I followed up with “Believe”, a post about why this worse possible scenario isn’t necessarily the right or even most logical conclusion and provided several perfectly valid reasons for the outstanding times we’ve seen recently. Yet I find myself drawn back in uneasy speculation about the marked improvements being shown by so many: improvements which in normal times would draw immediate suspicion or outright denouncement. So in this post I’m going to look at the dark side of swimming; of the apocalyptic possibility which in polite circles cannot be spoken of. If you tremble with anticipation for the Beijing Games to begin so you can watch some spectacular swimming and cheer on your favourite stars you’ll want to seriously consider not reading any further. For, as one popular movie’s protagonist was told, “this is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill - the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill - you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes”.

Where is swimming really trending with regards to performance enhancing drugs (PEDs)? Just how deep is the rabbit-hole? When I came out last year and publicly accused Dara Torres of using PEDs it wasn’t personal maliciousness on my part. It was my concern for the possible impact her story may well have on our sport. Every professional coach and elite swimmer in the world knows a forty year old woman cannot come back after several years of retirement, train for less than a year, and then dramatically improve enough on what was originally only a moderately successful career to become one of the leading sprinters in the world. Even her personal coach is on record¹ stating it’s not supposed to be possible. Dara Torres has quite literally thumbed her nose at WADA daring them to figure out how it’s being done. And no doubt the swimming world has watched in sick fascination to see if WADA would discover her secret. It was then and remains my belief Dara Torres standing up on the podium at Beijing would signal not only successful cheating is possible but unstoppable; and the money and fame following from her triumph would usher in a new age of unprecedented rampant cheating. Eventually such a debased culture must destroy swimming as a viable professional sport. Dara Torres, I personally believe, is our generation’s Typhoid Mary, a harbinger and bringer of disaster. It now seems possible, perhaps even likely, that after watching for over a year the rest of the swimming world has decided not to wait to see Torres to mount the Olympic podium. They’ve decided to follow her lead in time for this Olympics.

Let’s start with the question of whether or not PEDs work. Well do they? Oh, absolutely they do. In their post “Drugs Work – But by How Much? A Look at Doping and Performance Improvements” South Africans Jonathan Dugas and Ross Tucker analyze a paper authored by Franke and Berendonk which was published in the journal Clinical Chemistry in 1997. The paper compiles data from scientific studies produced from East Germany’s extensive state doping program. The paper’s abstract discloses:
Top-secret doctoral theses, scientific reports, progress reports of grants, proceedings from symposia of experts, and reports of physicians and scientists who served as unofficial collaborators for the Ministry for State Security (“Stasi”) reveal that from 1966 on, hundreds of physicians and scientists, including top-ranking professors, performed doping research and administered prescription drugs as well as unapproved experimental drug preparations. Several thousand athletes were treated with androgens every year, including minors of each sex. Special emphasis was placed on administering androgens to women and adolescent girls because this practice proved to be particularly effective for sports performance.
Of course, as this was in the very early stages of employing drugs for performance enhancement, the studies concentrate on the more obvious hormones, primarily testosterone. Ross and Jonathan expand on this to include analysis on the effectiveness of EPO vis-à-vis cycling. Their conclusion? It seems doping works “very well”, estimating benefits of at least 15% in the power sports and slightly less in endurance sports such as cycling. When we saw again and again finalists in the last Olympics all finishing within fractions of a second of each other the effectiveness of doping can not be debated.

What about health risks? It didn't take long to learn that though the hazards of steroid use and other performance enhancing drugs are well known and documented it’s also true they stem almost entirely from overdoses rather than any inherent pharmacological problem. It is safe to assume today’s elite athlete will be under strict medical supervision, if only to ensure his or her doping goes undetected, and consequently any potential for overdosing on these drugs is going to be either minimal or virtually non-existent. Of course injecting anything isn’t the preferred method of taking ‘health’ supplements but practically speaking the risk is minor compared to the serious and potentially crippling injuries from training and competition most athletes must contend with. Not that I’d recommend their use. If you want to vicariously experience what taking performance enhancing drugs actually entails you could do a lot worse than read Writer’s Workshop novelist Craig Davidson’s description of his short foray into this world here, all done in a misguided effort to give verisimilitude to his first novel.

What are the chances of being caught? Well the correct answer here is, of course, it depends. But for this article’s purposes we’re going to limit ourselves to looking at the sophisticated cheats, the ones who stand to make a great deal of money and therefore can afford to have the best medical advice and doping procedural experts close at hand to guide them through the potential traps and pitfalls of WADA and its national federations.

The first line of defense is to simply avoid being tested at the wrong time. Doping can be, and often is, done in cycles. Normally the athlete will go on his or her drug regime during heavy training, and then ‘coast’ for a period of time off. Not coincidentally this seems to invariably align with competitions. To forestall this WADA implements “out-of-competition” testing where athletes can be tested without notice at any time. Critiques of the current testing procedures, however, have pointed out the relatively small number of these unannounced tests when compared to the population under scrutiny. Then there's the problem posed by the three strikes rule for missed tests. Presently a doping athlete can avoid giving a positive test by providing just enough information to WADA about their whereabouts to be in compliance but not enough for them to actually be found should they, by bad luck, be one of the few selected for random testing (ex. ensuring their mobile phone message box is always full). Certainly this results in a missed test but with another two in hand the exception isn’t a big deal. The cyclist Michael Rasmussen, for example, just recently won damages for his ‘wrongful’ firing from the cycling team Rabobank during last year’s Tour de France, something Rabobank carried out despite his wearing the treasured maillot jaune at the time. He was fired because he was discovered to have lied about his whereabouts prior to the race. The implications were obvious to all and personally speaking I think Rabobank was correct to fire him. Yet according to the rules currently in play Rasmussen had merely made a mistake. There's little doubt this technicality was crucial to his successful lawsuit.

But why go through all this bother and subterfuge if the desired performance enhancing drugs can be made undetectable to any the known test. The BALCO scandal opened the world’s eyes to this possibility. With only the help of an organic chemist Victor Conte created tetrahydrogestrinone (THG) aka “The Clear”. “The Clear” would probably still be in circulation today if it wasn’t for a coaching rivalry and a sample sent to WADA. In another sobering Science of Sport article “Drugs in Sport – Could It Be Bigger Than We Thought?”, which is in turn heavily reliant on the investigative writings of ESPN’s Shaun Assael, the two trudge through the depressing success story of steroid manufacturing today. The hundreds of millions of dollars in sales, the dozens upon dozens of manufacturers, the huge profits, the surging demand, they’re all covered in excruciating detail – including the plentiful availability of undetectable drugs.
Having set up a supplement company, the journalist orders products that are sold to him on the premise that they work and are undetectable. Sure enough, he has them shipped to his address from a company based in the USA, and has them tested for the 11 known classes of steroids. The result - negative.
Experts believe there could be up to a hundred custom steroids, all requiring their own special test to be detectable, floating around for sale. If you think all these drugs are headed for high school students, bodybuilders, and recreational athletes (after all what wouldn’t you do to be able to hit the ball out of the park in the company’s recreational softball league?) then I suggest you consider why the demand for undetectable steroids has soared. The very existence of devices for cheating tests, such as the Butt Wedge (no longer marketed but apparently very popular during the 2004 Athens Games) and the surprisingly still available Whizzinator, will undoubtedly come to those who deny drugs are a serious problem as quite a shock. I was also interested to discover it’s possible to purchase synthetic urine, though I’m not sure why anyone with a modicum of intelligence would be comforted by the double-your-money back guarantee offer.

But whatever I've written here the decision to use or not use drugs ultimately comes down to each athlete’s sense of ethics and economic need. And that I feel will be determined in large part by whether athletes believe the competitors lining up beside them aren’t doping. Sadly when I look at what’s going on right now I’d have to believe the chances for a drug-free Olympics aren’t very good. Not good at all.

Post Script:

Recently we’ve been hearing about American athletes who have been volunteering to contribute samples at frequent intervals both in and out of training and during competition. They belong to a USADA pilot program modeled on the “Passport” programs first implemented in Europe. I’m not quite as confident in the project’s infallibility to catch cheats as the mass media presents it to be so I’ll reserve any judgment until I can gather enough information together to give a reasonably informed opinion (i.e. contact experts). I will say at this time, however, that WADA withholding the program's protocols from the scientific community suggests there are ways to beat the test. USADA’s problem is reverse engineering applies as much to science as it does to manufacturing, and with enough effort the applicable protocols can be established and appropriate counter-measures taken. Nor can flat out espionage be ruled out. Secrets are notorious for being short lived. Sometimes they have no life at all.

I also want to take the time to thank Jonathan Dugas and Ross Tucker for their excellent selection of articles on doping practices. Their blog The Science of Sport was a tremendous source of scientifically grounded information. If I find their doping articles individually crushing in import, taken together they are absolutely devastating for those who believe drugs have no place in sports. Another most informative overview of the testing process and what athletes do to beat them can be found on the Meso-Rx blog in an post entitled "The History of Drug Testing in Sports & How Athletes Beat the Drug Tests". Read all the links, you won't understand the depth of the problem until you do.

¹"Her comeback is just mind-boggling," said Michael Lohberg, Torres's coach in Coral Springs, Fla. "I don't think people can actually comprehend what's happening here. It hasn't happened before and it probably won't happen again. A 40-year-old who hasn't been swimming for years should never go this fast." – At 40, Torres is Back in the Fast Lane, Washington Post, Aug.2, 2007 (my italics)


m said...


Here's a link to a piece in "Ode Magazine" in which the writer talks about how PED use in athletics reflects drug use in society:

I, frankly, agree with the sentiments expressed. I wonder what your thoughts are?

Scott said...

My next post coming this weekend covers this very topic. I agree with our society's current ethical and moral standards it's not difficult to argue we're unfairly holding our athletes to a higher standard than we do ourselves. Even so I come down hard on doping infractions. I'm one of those "string the bastard up" folk. Perhaps because I look at it as if I was one of the competitors who've been wronged - a viewpoint which doesn't give the concept of 'cheating' the public much thought at all. I don't give a crap about them and their righteous indignation at being robbed of an idol to worship. It's the damage the doper is doing to his or her 'clean' competitors I believe ethically indefensible. But no question at all this is a very complex subject.