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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?