DRUGS IN SPORT: “Cheating in professional sports is an epidemic” – why biological passports are required now

drugs in sport

An excellent article was written recently by Bill Simmons (editor-in-chief of Grantland – an ESPN internet venture) surrounding doping in professional sports. To summarise, his commentary reflected on how American sports (namely American football and basketball) are in a state of disarray given their laughable and incredibly lax stance on drug testing. In particular, he asked why is there so much fear in discussing doping in sport? An important point considering “we are all secretly suspicious of so many athletes’ achievements in the 21st century.”

In the US, the last huge outrage concerning a native sport was the baseball steroids scandal, which frustratingly took two decades in order for the truth to prevail. Murmurs of drug-taking commenced barely two months after Ben Johnson shocked the world during the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Coincidence? Maybe. Or it may have served as Dutch courage for someone to speak out. Tom Boswell, a Washington Post reporter, stuck his head on the chopping board with the statement that Jose Canseco (about to win the Most Valuable Player award) was “the most conspicuous example of a player who made himself great with steroids”.  It would be a 12 year wait for another notable article on the matter, as the LA Times, in 2000, stated “we all know there’s steroid use [in baseball] and its becoming more prevalent” before adding “steroids was the secret we’re not supposed to talk about”.

One glimpse at the all-time home-run league table is a fine indicator of how fans firmly buried their heads in the sand ignoring the obvious signs. The top-six all-time performances occurred between 1998 and 2001 – during the height of the scandal. To put these feats into perspective, from seventh to tenth place, the iconic Babe Ruth enters the charts twice – from back in the 1920s, with the remaining entries occurring in the 1930’s and the 1960’s, when the game was not all about power. Amazingly, at the time, supporters preferred to keep believing their idols and dared not to question how exactly so many of these achievements were legally possible – maybe abnormal lunar activity carried the ball further during 1998 to 2001…

Barry Bonds Before & After

Before and after shot of Barry Bonds

In 2006, there was a breakthrough as Canseco released his autobiography which championed the use of performance enhancing substances – “steroids were the key to it all, I was such an improved player.” In addition, he implicated team mates who he educated about doping, including his own brother. The scandal concluded with a total of 129 players being either admitted, directly implicated or suspended by the Major League Baseball Association for Human Growth Hormone or Steroid usage.

Whilst American football and basketball have not been exposed to this level of scandal, both codes have inadequate drug testing procedures in place. Taking basketball as an example, players can be drug tested up to four times in one season. Therefore, if a player has reached his designated four tests for the campaign, it’s open season after that. Whether it be ‘recreational’ drugs or EPO type substances to boost endurance for that arduous 25 game playoff season, you and I will never know. In NFL, players regularly come back sooner than expected from injuries and it is not uncommon to witness players competing at higher levels when compared to their pre-injury state. Conventional wisdom advocates that this is not naturally possible.

There will be those that read this and breathe a sigh of relief. “Thankfully, that’s America’s problem”. Not so. Look at recent news in Australia and Spain alone. It’s uncanny timing. Like Ben Johnson’s fall from grace set the wheels in motion in slowly uncovering drug-use in baseball, Lance Armstrong’s rather pathetic interview with Oprah could be the catalyst for uncovering further scandals, but this time on a global sporting scale. With the Worldwide Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) reaching the level of exposure as it has in Armstrong-gate, it can only become a more powerful body which, in turn, will help clean up local drug authorities.

Just yesterday, the Australian Crime Commission shocked its nation after publishing findings of a year-long investigation which uncovered the use of banned drugs, some untested for humans, by “multiple athletes across a number of Australian codes”. The report states that coordinated doping programs, in some instances for entire teams, have been assisted by coaches, sports scientists, doctors and pharmacists.

From Australia let us fly to Spain and visit the Fuentes trial. Seven years ago police raided premises linked to Dr Eufemiano Fuentes, cycling’s ‘doping doctor’, confiscating approximately 200 bags of tampered blood (labelled with complex codes) and what can only be described as a pharmacy of performance enhancing substances including EPO, HGH, steroids and testosterone.

Dr Fuentes

Currently on trial in Madrid, Fuentes is charged with breaking public health laws since no doping-related crimes can be brought against him, as Spain had no anti-doping law at the time of his arrest. Although Fuentes made his name in cycling, he also claims to have worked with footballers, tennis players, boxers and athletes. It is alleged that when he was arrested a second time, Fuentes disclosed to a prison informant that he had information which could strip Spain of their football World Cup plus European Championships titles. Quite bizarre then, that with all of this ammunition at the courts’ disposal, judge Julia Santamaria, has refused WADA’s plea to unlock codes attached to the blood bags, granting protection on a par with diplomatic immunity to numerous sports stars.

In light of these two examples alone, is enough action being taken by sports governing bodies? FIFA are ‘looking’ at implementing an athlete biological passport (ABP) system, developed by WADA, in time for the 2014 World Cup. The biological passport would be the best doping deterrent available since its fundamental principle is based on the monitoring of selected biological parameters over time that will indirectly reveal the effects of doping rather than attempting to detect the doping substance itself. FIFA should give themselves a pat on the back for getting ahead of other sports, but then again, they have also been ‘looking’ at implementing video technology for years. Also, if the lack of transparency in the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding process is anything to go by, we may be waiting a touch longer than 2014.

Leaving football and onto tennis. Just how clean is tennis? Whilst the International Tennis Federation (ITF) may naively point to their 273 page Tennis Anti-Doping Programme manual, whispers of their laid back approach to testing have become somewhat deafening in recent weeks.

Guy Forget, who rose as high as number 4 in the world in the early 1990s was adamant that he was beaten by players taking performance enhancing substances, simply because there were no controls in place at the time to stop them from doing so. Despite today’s controls, Forget remains concerned: “I am sure now as we speak there are some guys that are cheating. You cannot say tennis is not touched by this poisonous thing. I think it is a minority probably, but that is why Roger Federer and the other guys say we should put more money into blood test and controls because we should fight this any way we can.” Darren Cahill, ex-coach of Lleyton Hewitt and Andre Agassi, voiced his support of Forget and tweeted: “Our testing program is inadequate. That’s why no-one can stand up and speak out. It’s gone backwards in recent years.”

These statements from insiders are damning yet hardly surprising. Upon examination of the ITF’s manual, there is an abundance of grey area, particularly given that much of the testing is at the ‘discretion’ of the ITF. Britain’s Andy Murray added, “I don’t know exactly how it works [testing]; I just know it comes down to cost.” The last year where tests results were made available was 2011. During the entire year, there were 76 blood tests and 1,130 urine tests for male players. With approximately 2,000 registered players on the ATP tour, less than 4% of the target population was tested via a blood sample – somewhat worrying.

Dick Pound, former head of World Anti-Doping Agency, did not pussy foot around this delicate area as he claimed that the sport certainly has a doping problem. Pound’s opinion was formed on the basis that the generation of Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl were physically inferior to today’s athleles. “Even Lendl, who was notoriously fit, would look like a little old man compared to these folks now, running, lunging, lashing for three hours at a stretch. Look at the difference in build and sustained level of activity. If the tennis authorities don’t believe there is EPO or HGH use now they are not paying attention.”

Certainly, tennis standards have increased over the years. Not long after Sampras claimed his place in history with his 14th major, Roger Federer stamped his magical authority on the game. We were bewitched by witnessing an exquisite tennis game from a unique individual who oozed class. At this point, there were no questions of drugs, just an appreciation of an artist at work. When we thought it couldn’t get any better though, Rafael ‘One-armed Popeye’ Nadal arrived on the scene with his devastating style of tennis and his never-say-die athleticism. He met Federer’s bar and amazingly raised it. Novak Djokovic then came along and, to everyone’s disbelief, did the same to the Spaniard. Akin to Nadal’s physical attributes, particularly in possessing a totally relentless engine, finals of grand slam tournaments are eagerly anticipated, yet implausible spectacles. The 2012 showpiece Down Under lasted just shy of six hours. Yet the tempo of the match rarely dropped as we were treated to a truly epic match where the sheer physicality involved contained an aura of doubt. Just how did these two players keep producing quality tennis of the highest order for six hours?

Andre Agassi

Are we simply lucky to be living in an era when, throwing Andy Murray into the equation, we have four genuinely gifted athletes, who continuously bring out the best from each other? Murray aside, the remaining trio are considered as three of the best players of all time. That’s Andre Agassi’s opinion. The winner of eight grand slam tournaments and one of few men ever to have won all four majors during his career said, “It’s been amazing watching the standard continually sort of get better. You wonder how it’s possible to continue at that sort of rate. It’s just a different standard of tennis. I would have had to be a different player, would’ve had to have a different body. It means the game has gotten a lot better.” It’s hard to disagree with Andre, even if he has dabbled with crystal-meth…

What made me sit up and take notice recently was Djokovic’s performance at the 2013 Australian Open. When he met David Ferrer at the semi-final stage, both players had played seven and a half hours of tennis in their previous two rounds. Djokovic, who struggled past 15th seed Stanislas Wawrinka, winning 12-10 in a deciding fifth set in the fourth found, absolutely wiped the floor with Ferrer, a player renowned for his durability on the circuit, in less than an hour and a half (both ladies’ semi-finals lasted longer). For a player who was on form, Ferrer won a measly five games in three sets of grand slam tennis.

Off the court, there should also be questions – Nadal’s knee injury would be a decent starting point. Why has there not been any further interest in the injury other than to happily acknowledge that the Spaniard has had tendonitis? What’s my point? My point is, we have Dr Fuentes being raided in 2006, who is Spanish, who has admitted to treating tennis players, amongst others, and no-one bats an eyelid. Now returning to the tour after seven months out, Nadal’s form should be under scrutiny. As per match fitness in any sport, players cannot simply return from a lengthy injury and perform at the same levels pre-injury (particularly his) in a short space of time.

Like FIFA, the ITF plans to introduce the biological passport into tennis. Dr. Stuart Miller, who oversees the ITF’s anti-doping programme said, “We think we can improve by (introducing) the athlete biological passport. That is not in operation at the moment. But we’re looking very, very closely at it and I think that there’s a reasonably good chance that that will be operational probably towards the end of 2013.” If that statement was met with a cheer, he then hindered our enthusiasm by adding, “It takes a long time to set up. There’s a number of constraints and conditions that you have to satisfy, you can’t just turn a switch.”

From tennis, let us leap into track and field. Usain Bolt. The Jamaican has destroyed the rest of the field with regular staggering feats since 2008 that rightfully leave us in awe. But would you be surprised if he failed a drugs test? Some would vehemently argue ‘yes’. After all, half the competitors at the 2012 Olympics were tested, including all those who won medals. Bolt, therefore, would have been tested at least once during the London Games and passed. Another logical argument is that Bolt has been blessed with an incredible God-given talent and, importantly, his stride pattern in a 100 metre sprint is superior to other athletes since he takes 40 strides to get to the finish line compared to an average sprinter’s 45, thus making him more efficient.

Dick Pound

That said, it is a widespread notion that drug testing is virtually non-existent in Jamaica and another statement from former WADA chief (but current International Olympic Committee member) Dick Pound (pictured above) gave food for thought. When pressed as to whether he was happy the way Jamaican athletes were tested, Pound responded adamantly: “No. They are one of the groups who are hard to test. It is hard to get in and find them, and so forth”. Additionally, Bolt was injured for a sizeable portion of the Olympic season, yet came back to claim a clean sweep of three gold medals and a world record. The public though, do not dare to question these achievements. Why? Because Bolt has a colourful personality? Because we like him?

Look at Jamaica’s clean sweep overall in the sprints. Five of the six medalists in the men’s 100m and 200m were Jamaican. The other member of the six? Justin Gatlin, the 2004 Olympic 100m gold medalist who was banned in 2006 for four years (initially eight years but reduced to four) following a failed drugs test through USADA that contained elevated levels of ‘testosterone or its percursor’. His coach was Trevor Graham, who has had no fewer than eight athletes test positive or banned for performance enhancing substances.

With vast riches and widespread adulation acquired in professional sport, undeniably there is temptation aplenty to gain a competitive advantage over your rivals, even in the taboo form of doping. It is easy to claim we would not do the same whilst sitting behind a PC, or in a pub, but until you are in that situation there are no 100% answers. As an athlete, taking a banned substance, knowing when the testers are coming, enabling a speedy recovery from injury in order to play in a cup-final (for example) must be tempting. Pick up a trophy? A winners’ medal? A bonus? These factors may outweigh the small possibility of being caught out as a drug cheat. There are additional pressures. Coaches want to succeed. They want their best players available and in some cases, are desperate for them to perform beyond their natural limits. What about the money men? Sponsors want copious amounts of viewers to watch their designated sport, hoping the viewer will associate their brand to the glory of game. Afterall, the number of viewers generally depends on the quality of the spectacle. Think Nike, Ronaldo seizures and the 1998 World Cup final.

Taking into consideration that Lance Armstrong’s confession, the Fuentes trial and yesterday’s Australian findings have all already occurred in 2013, it is more likely than not that additional doping scandals will be uncovered in the near future and some will shock more than others.

Moving forward, the single, most effective, deterrent to doping is the biological passport. This is a concept which must be introduced with immediate effect. Sporting bodies may complain that it is a complex process but given the huge financial resources at their disposal there is no excuse – “cheating in professional sports is an epidemic,” biological passports are required now.

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