Is There Another Way to Eliminate Doping? A Guest Post

Levitt blogged the other day about Yale Law student Aaron Zelinsky‘s proposal for ending steroid use in Major League Baseball. Now here’s an anti-doping counter-proposal from Joe Lindsey, a sports writer and blogger/contributor at Bicycling magazine. You may remember Joe from another guest post, in which he also countered an earlier Freakonomics doping post. So this is getting to be a regular — and welcomed — event.

Is There Another Way to Eliminate Doping?
by Joe Lindsey

Every day, it seems, we get a new report about drugs in sports. Some, like the Mitchell Report, are sobering. Some, like the news that rappers are juicing themselves to get big guns for shooting videos, are comically strange. But the steady drumbeat of news continues, and the big question is what to do about it.

Legalize it? That’s been proposed before, and as I wrote here back in July, there are a number of serious problems with the idea that render it pretty much impossible. Enact a Draconian testing regime, holding samples for decades, as Zelinsky suggests? Maybe there’s a third way.

What if we could somehow guarantee that athletes are clean before they even take the start line, before the whistle blows? It’s not a futuristic notion. It’s happening right now, in a sport that most casual fans have left for dead precisely because of its doping problems: pro bicycle racing.

Next month, at the Tour of California, race officials will unveil the most comprehensive anti-doping program ever seen in any sport. Every single rider in the race — 136 in all — will submit to pre-race blood testing to look for signs of manipulation. Some teams have taken on the responsibility themselves.

Slipstream Sports, an American team run by former pro Jonathan Vaughters, is one of four teams that are pioneering their own, independently run testing programs, designed not to catch cheaters so much as deter them from ever starting. Their model relies on extensive testing — an average of one test per rider per week — and will cost the team a little under $500,000 this year. It’s expensive and intrusive. Still, the riders have volunteered for it because they view it as the only way for their sport to regain credibility.

But isn’t testing itself error-prone? Tour de France winner Floyd Landis claims a botched test caused his positive, and he produced enough evidence to convince one of the three arbitrators in his case to agree (it’s now on appeal). Denver Broncos running back Travis Henry successfully appealed — on procedural grounds — a positive test for marijuana, and last year, Aussie swimmer Ian Thorpe was said to have tested positive for high levels of testosterone and luteinizing hormone, before a subsequent investigation ruled that out (not before the initial results leaked, though). According to this line of thought, more testing may just mean more false positives (or at the least, more rancorous legal bickering like in the Landis case).

But Slipstream’s testing, which is independently administered, is different; instead of looking directly for banned substances, it checks biomarkers — hormone levels, red blood cell concentration, and other benchmarks that remain relatively uniform in a person over time — and compares them to past results. A sudden jump in a marker doesn’t mean an athlete is doping, but it could, and that rider gets benched until the markers return to normal or can be explained by, say, illness. Too many warnings and the rider is fired.

The Slipstream model is so compelling that it forms the basis for not only the Tour of California’s new program, but a similar one that the sport’s international governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale, is rolling out this year. Even the World Anti-Doping Agency is quietly studying it, which means it could someday become part of all Olympic sports testing.

Will it work? We don’t know yet — Vaughters calls it a “grand experiment.” But it offers a lot more hope than other options for cleaning up sports without destroying them. Legalized doping would turn sports into pure entertainment; they’d no longer be about human effort and achievement. Holding samples to be tested years, even decades, down the road means that fans can’t cheer that broken-field touchdown scramble or upper deck home run without wondering if, a decade hence, we’ll learn it was pharmaceutically aided.

The Slipstream model, if it’s successful, means we could know right now that what we’re cheering for is nothing but real talent and genuine human effort. If you had to choose a way forward for sports, which would it be?


Jonathan Hall

it's "Aaron" Zelinsky

Charles

Outstanding. This is an excellent method. The idea of a test that is proactive instead of reactive is quite remarkable.

Seth

There was a great article a few weeks ago on ESPN.com about Slipstream. It is a good interesting read.

Mark S.

Juan is correct. Unless you are testing from well before they become an Olympic level athlete, you will have no way of knowing if they have been cheating from the beginning.

Juan

For many Olympic events this is not practical as it requires regular testing (at least monthly) over many years. If the atlete has been using steroids for 5 years, then all tests over this period will show consistent results. Nothing would jump to indicate a possible initial use.

Matt P

Yes, this'll work. For now.

Then the next wave of steroids will include medication to regulate these biomarkers. If illness can cause change, surely something synthetic can also make adjustments.

It's a great idea to win a battle, but it doesn't end the "war".

AaronS

Hey, I was sitting right here all by my lonesome and came up with the solution!

Very simply, if you are caught doping, you don't get a rehabilitation, you aren't sent to sensitivity classes. YOU ARE FIRED. Forever. You can never play professional sports again. Period.

Further, if there is any money owed to you, it is forfeited. Any records you set are taken off the books.

Oh, and you go to jail for a minimum of 5 years. After all, you're using illegal drugs, right?

Further, if anyone reports you for doing drugs and it leads to your conviction, they are given enough to make it a serious incentive to report abusers. Further, it comes out of any monies that are in paid in arrears.

Regular checks and random checks ought to be enough.

Oh, and we find out about it 5 years after you retire? Same thing. Any monies you had coming to you from royalties, endoresements, etc.--it's now ours. Your records are gone. And you go to jail.

There is a one year amnesty period for every one to get it out of there system.

You know, I really ought to be in charge of everything.

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David R.

I wonder if alcoholism (Billy Martin and Mickey Mantle, and certainly some players of today) would be detected by this method? Or, would this method only pick up binge behavior and banned substances? While the approach sounds promising, shouldn't it be practiced on rats first?

Sam

What if, for example, a cyclists hematocrit level tests between 46 and 49 (just under the level in which they would be disqualified for having a red blood cell count too high to be considered normal) through the entire year?

Then say that level remains constant during a Grand Tour, maybe the Tour de France for example, even though other rider's test indicate that their hematocrit levels are declining as a result of the great stress placed upon their bodies.

This seems to be the inherent weakness in the Slipstream model, as endurance athletes can blood dope by freezing their own blood and later re-injecting it into their bodies. The markers are their own blood markers, and they are consistent with their all of their prior tests.

Will we know that we are cheering for real talent and human effort then? Is that what we have cheered for in the past?

Trevor

I recall a paper I wrote in my final year of university; my research brought me to several articles that documented the first tests of performance enhancing drugs (nitro glycerin in this case) in the late 19th century were tested on road cyclists! I don't think the sport has ever existed without the drugs.

Dan

Isn't this putting the fox in charge of henhouse security?

Mike B

To think that professional sport is anything other than "pure entertainment" means that you are living in a fantasy world. The most popular American sports, Basketball and Football, have been continually tweaked with rule (shot clock, 2pt conversion) and structural changes (salary cap, draft picks) to make the games more exciting to watch and the teams generally more even, more competitive and ultimately more "entertaining". Much like cigarettes, professional sports have been honed into an addictive drug, a marketing weapon designed to hook fans and draw them in as opposed to something which fosters and generates "achievement".

Nowhere is this perhaps more evident than in motorsport such as NASCAR where back in the day winners were determined by the innovation of the automakers which sponsored them and built their vehicles. Today the cars are essentially homogeneous, speeds are flat and the technology is outdated, all in the name of creating competitive races with more "drama". The same is becoming true for F1 racing, with ever more restrictive rules designed to prevent too high levels of performance and domination by a few.

Sports tend to represent the very spirit of competition and as such rules and regulations designed to limit free competition in sport should be eliminated. The performance potential of participants should not be limited by rules designed to bring the level of competition down to where "drama" happens. A "drug free" sport is more manufactured than one where participants are limited only by the constraints of technology and budget. Personally I would love to see Merck and Phizer (etc) battling for dominance through their riders on the international cycling circuit. That's more preferable than all those Viagra ads on TV and would create the required drama without having to artificially manufacture it.

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Joe Lindsey

In response to Juan (poster #3) and Sam (poster #9):

The Slipstream method tests a number of different biomarkers, both in blood and hormones. I'm more familiar with the science behind blood doping because it's more prevalent in cycling, but the architects of the testing method (who, by the way, are not employed by Slipstream and are an independent contractor called the Agency for Cycling Ethics) tell me that the hormone profiles work in a similar fashion, to speak broadly. I asked Paul Scott, ACE's director of testing, if it would be possible to beat the tests by doping continuously over a long period of time. He replied that based on his knowledge of human physiology and these test methods, it would be nearly impossible to devise a doping program that was so sophisticated that it would nudge all the biomarkers off so consistently as to evade detection. Here's how it works with blood doping:

Haematocrit (which is the red blood cell concentration expressed as a percentage of whole blood volume) is just one of the biomarkers tested. Another is reticulocyte count, or the number of new red blood cells. They also test raw hemoglobin counts, mean corpuscle volume and stimulation index, a measure of new blood production which works in concert with reticulocyte count.

Red cells have a natural life in the body of about 120 days, so your body is constantly producing new ones. If you blood dope using your own, whole blood, what happens is that your body eventually shuts down its own production of new red cells. It says "Hey, there's enough blood in my blood already; no need to make more." This is a natural human bioregulation process that affects every constant in our body. Generally, it's called homeostasis.

So the Slipstream test measures reticulocyte production against your known levels and against known human norms. If you're blood doping, it shows up on the test as a flag that your body's not producing many new red cells. This can mean a number of different things, ranging from the mundane (you just got back from a training camp at altitude) to the medically serious (such as a rare condition called pure red cell aphasia, where your body stops producing new red cells) to the nefarious (blood doping). The rider sits until the retic count returns to relatively normal levels or an explanation is found.

Basically, instead of looking for specific things that tinker with blood chemistry or steroid chemistry, the testing looks at how that chemistry is affected by ANY effort to tinker with it. I don't know whether the system is foolproof or perfect; it's only been in place for a season now - as Vaughters says, it's the grand experiment.

But it does have quite a bit of promise, for all Olympic sports. It will be fascinating to see if it works.

PS - and yes, bad bit of editing on my part to omit Aaron Zelinsky's first name. Apologies to him.

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Elizabeth

Very good article. The solution must be pro-active as well as punitive should one "dodge the bullet" i.e. passing controls which we know has been the case for many cycling champions. I agree with the "you're fired" post and/or plain old make it a felony.
I have a problem with ACE in that the man who is the director of testing, Paul Scott, is also the man who is part of disgraced and stripped Tour de France champ Floyd Landis. I'm not sure why that wasn't disclosed. But given that Paul Scott has defended a convicted doper like Floyd and is presumably on his defence team for the CAS hearing it doesn't jive.

Paul

Re: Elizabeth (#14)

Paul Scott broke with USADA when he realized how poorly the testing on Floyd's samples was done. And he was proved correct when the arbitration panel admitted that Floyd didn't show any manipulation of his testosterone level and his A+B samples didn't actually show an elevated T/E ratio. Scott strikes me as a serious guy and knew bs labwork when he saw it.
BTW. Floyd is getting screwed by that lab. Check TrustButVerify's excellent blog to review the testimony yourself.

Paul (bike shop stiff)

Dave #18
No I'm not the Paul you think.
I'm a working class stiff, cycling fan.
And you cannot impugn TBV like that. They were assiduous in their reporting. And Floyd is getting screwed, I tell ya.
Read the testimony from the second week, where the defense testifies. It's horrifying. The lab lies and cheats. They have incompetent employees and they don't operate their diagnostic machinery properly.
It's one thing for Floyd but this affects every athlete and every sport tested at that lab. They are shown to be completely incompetent.
Not the Paul you thought.

Sam

Joe: Any idea of how often one would have to use their own whole blood in order for their body to slow or stop production of its own? I have read that during the Tour, some teams have brought their own blood in after the first week and prior to the mountain stages . . . would a single incident in a stage race change the retic count?

Diana

Thorpe's result that was investigated was better classified as an atypical finding (WADA code article 7.3: laboratories are directed to report the presence of prohibited substances, which may also be produced endogenously, as atypical findings subject to further investigation). Where an A sample returns an AAF, authorities may make that result public; if Thorpe's result was an AAF and not an atypical finding, then it would have been procedurally correct for the result to have been publicised.

I think for the most part testing and analysis procedures are working well - the hysteria of the media in reporting on results they don't take the time to understand is not, however. As you say Joe, not all changes are suspicious, and it is important to give clean athletes the opportunity to explain them before we crucify them. Drug testing works best when clean athletes have faith in the system and willingly subject themselves to anti-doping controls.

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Diana

Ian Thorpe was never 'said to have tested positive'. The article you reference states that the 'five-time Olympic champion was being investigated after a sample he provided in May 2006 produced high levels of testosterone and luteinising hormone'. Further investigation of a sample does not mean that the sample was positive; testosterone and luteinising hormone are naturally occurring substances and it is not unusual for an athlete to return values that are outside a 'normal' range for the general population. Few anti-doping experts would infer that a result such as Thorpe's was a potential positive; the usual procedure, as occurred in this case, is to conduct more testing to establish whether the values are 'normal' for the athlete. There is a significant difference between being 'further investigated' and 'testing positive' in this case, and Thorpe, of all athletes, deserves to have that difference respected.

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Peter Brady

Man, if people worried about important problems as much as they worry about sports, we would be living in a utopia.