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Doping in Athletics

Doping is a contentious issue in the world of sport. We delve into the history of doping, the science behind it and reveal how common doping may be within athletics.

The term doping was first used in 1963 by the European Committee Council. They stated “Doping represents the use of substances or physiological mediators, which are not normally present in the human body, introduced as an external aid to increase the athletes’ performance during a competition”. Doping is almost exclusively associated with taking drugs but you can have other forms of doping such as mechanical doping which is the use of unauthorised equipment. This is more likely to occur in other sports such as cycling with examples including having a hidden motor within the bike. However we will focus exclusively on drug taking when discussing doping.

What is drug testing and how does it work?

Drug testing involves the collection of blood and urine samples from athletes in order to screen against the use of banned substances. These samples are then sent to an accredited lab in order to undergo testing for any substance that is on the World Anti-Doping Agency's’ (WADA) list of banned substances.

History of Doping

It has been reported that there were instances of doping in the Ancient Olympic Games and continues to this day. Quite simply, if humans are competing, some want try to gain advantages, fairly or unfairly.

1928 – Until 1928 doping considered legal in sport but the International Athletics Federation (IAF) became the first international federation to ban doping.

1960 – Drug testing within competition was first introduced for the first time.

1967 – The IOC (International Olympic Committee) banned the use of performance enhancing drugs and created a list of banned substances. A Medical Commission is created to fight doping and given three overarching principles: protect the health of athletes, respect for sport and medical ethics and ensure equality for competing athletes.

1968 – The very first official drugs test is performed at the Olympic Games in Mexico City. Swedish athlete Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall is the first athlete to report a positive drug test, reportedly for excessive alcohol consumption.

1975 – Anabolic steroids are added to the list of banned substances. Although they were known to be performance enhancing, testing methods were unable to detect them when the banned substance list was first introduced.

1989 – Out of competition drug testing is commissioned in 1989.

2000 – U.S. Anti-doping (USADA) is formally created and begins operations to develop a comprehensive national anti-doping programme within the United States.

2002 – Dr Don Catlin, identifies the first designer anabolic steroid in an athlete’s urine sample for the first time. Designer steroids allowed athletes to take steroids without being detected.

2004 – The IOC transfer control of the banned substance list to WADA who remove caffeine from the list of banned substances.

2009 – The athlete’s biological passport is introduced which represented a big step forward in anti-doping.

The biological passport

We mentioned earlier that the Athletes Biological passport was introduced in 2009 and presented a big step forward in the fight against doping in sport. Imagine an athlete’s career as a black tunnel. Drug testing shines a light down at a tiny percentage of the total length of the tunnel. In other words drug testing looks at a tiny amount of time that the athletes could be doping. The drug testers simply hope that they shine that light on the athlete at the right time. The chance of being caught doping therefore is relatively low so the World Anti-doping agency introduced the biological passport. Instead of completing drug tests to find drugs in athletes systems the biological passport is used to track changes in athlete’s physiology that indicates drug use.

There are a few physiological markers that are checked in an athlete’s biological passport but the two key markers are haemoglobin (an oxygen carrying molecule) and reticulocytes (immature red blood cells). The human body is unable to create large scale changes in these biological markers therefore large deviations from athletes normal values may be the result of doping.

Various forms of doping such as taking EPO or blood doping affect these markers but let’s begin with reticulocytes. Reticulocytes last for around one day before becoming mature red blood cells and usually 0.5-1.5% of our red blood cells are reticulocytes. Now when blood doping, you withdraw blood first, freeze it and then re-infuse the blood at a later date. When the blood is first removed, reticulocytes levels increase because the body needs to replace the blood that has been lost meaning a greater number of total cells are new. When the blood has been re-infused, the levels of reticulocytes decreases because the blood that‘s been frozen contains mostly mature red blood cells. The opposite occurs for haemoglobin. Removal of blood causes a drop in haemoglobin whilst a reinfusion results in a rise in levels.

However there are certain natural factors that will cause the markers identified within the athlete’s biological passport to change. For example, when an athlete travels to altitude for a training camp they are exposed to less oxygen. The body’s physiological response is to increase the production of red blood cells and increase the body’s natural production of EPO. Therefore in order to allow these changes the thresholds for abnormalities within an athlete’s biological passport must widen in order to make sure that clean athletes do not get incorrectly punished.

Researchers set confidence limits of 99.9% in order to limit the number of false positives (clean athletes being incorrectly banned for doping). Setting a 99.9% confidence level means that the chance of finding a value outside of the range that’s been set from an un-doped athlete is 1 in 1000.

The biological passport was responsible for the suspension of Asbel Kiprop, the former Olympic 1500m Gold Medallist from Kenya. Anti-doping authorities found a suspicious finding in his biological passport that increased the amount of testing placed upon him that eventually returned a positive EPO result.

Why is drug testing flawed

The desire to make sure that clean athletes remain unpunished may mean that athletes that are doping go unpunished. As mentioned above the thresholds must be set to make sure that the only reason athletes return a result outside or above the set limits is due to doping. If they cannot guarantee that then it is very difficult to ban athletes especially when appeals may go the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

WADA’s role in sport is ‘to monitor anti-doping activities worldwide to ensure proper implementation of and compliance with the World Anti-Doping Code by International Sports Federations and National Anti-Doping Organisations’. This means that drug testing has been put into the hands of individualised countries and their agencies which may create a conflict of interest. Many Olympic Programmes receive government funding and some governments potentially have a deep interest in fielding good teams.

WADA is part funded by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) which, straight away, creates a conflict of interest. This is most clearly seen when analysing the Russian systemic doping programme when in 2016, WADA recommended that the entire Russian Team should be banned for the Rio Olympics. The IOC initially rejected this notion.

Secondly, if the stars of athletics test positive, how will that look? Lets take the Usain Bolt vs. Justin Gatlin rivalry as an example. This was billed as good vs. bad in the lead up to the World Championship in 2015 and the Olympic Games in 2016. In commentary on that 2015 100m final, Steve Cram said about Bolt beating Gatlin “He’s saved his title, he’s saved his reputation, he may have even just saved his sport”. Imagine the fall out if Bolt returned a positive test. It’s not even worth thinking about.

How many athletes dope?

The big question and the answer may surprise you, or maybe not. More than 30% of competing athletes taking part in the 2011 World Athletics Championships admitted to taking performance enhancing drugs in a report commissioned by WADA. In this research, 45% of athletes at the Pan-Arab Games that same year admitted to doping when asked the same questions.

The researchers admitted that the true prevalence of doping remained unknown. Every athlete was tested at the 2011 World Championships but only 0.5% of tests returned a positive result. The testing success rate was greater at the Pan-Arab Games, rising to 3.6%. Blood and urine tests therefore only catch a very small percentage of athletes that are actually doping.

This was no small scale study either. The researchers approached over 70% of the athletes at the World Championships to participate and 93.3% agreed to take part, meaning that over 65% of all athletes competing took part in the research.

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