May 9, 2014

No Dope: Lessons from Lance Armstrong

Athletes using performance-enhancing drugs have been a step ahead of the agencies meant to police them. No more.

During his 2008 – 2009 return to cycling, Lance Armstrong submitted to 24 unannounced drug tests by various anti-doping authorities, the results of which all showed up negative for performance-enhancing drugs. Until his 2013 admission to Oprah Winfrey, he had continually denied doping allegations.

Despite constant suspicion, Armstrong evaded detection because he was part of a sophisticated and successful doping program. Of course, these sorts of elaborate and unhealthy measures to boost athletic performance are not restricted to cycling.

The assembly was prompted by the realization that scientific advances in performance-enhancing substances and the ingenuity of sports cheats were outpacing current anti-doping strategies.

Twenty-four international sports bodies have recently joined together to draft a new set of recommendations designed to revolutionize how we combat the increasingly sophisticated techniques used by athletes to enhance their performance illegally.

One key feature of this World Anti-Doping Code 2015 is the recommendation that blood and urine samples taken from athletes be stored for 10 years in order to allow technology to catch up with substances that cannot currently be detected.

The proposed code also calls for much wider use of biological profiling — developing a sort of “biological passport” for an athlete — which would show tiny changes taking place in the individual’s unique genetic blueprint as a result of doping activities. These measures provide the opportunity to retrospectively analyze samples over the course of a sporting career and routinely carry out biological profiling.

The FIFA World Cup soccer tournament will take place this June in Brazil, and also happens to be the first implementation of the “freeze and store” initiative. This decision was made during a meeting, late November at FIFA’s headquarters in Switzerland, that included representatives from FIFA, (the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, soccer's international governing body), the International Olympic Committee, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), and accredited anti-doping laboratories.

The assembly was prompted by the realization that scientific advances in performance-enhancing substances and the ingenuity of sports cheats were outpacing current anti-doping strategies, Professor Jiri Dvorak, the first author on the statement, explained in a podcast.

“The fight against doping has intensified over the past 10 to 15 years, but the increase in simple sampling procedures has not stopped some athletes from continuing [to cheat],” he added.

FIFA pioneered the biological passport initiative, acknowledging that it will be costly, but saying that it was important to begin what promises to be a highly effective program over the long-term. Other anti-doping measures include tailoring the assessment of doping risk to the demands of each individual sport. For example, the performance-enhancing substances commonly used by runners are different from those used by weight-lifters. It is also recommended that testing programs be tailored according to the training interval and doping culture for a given sport.

The consensus statement argues that, “all sports organizations ought to take the lead on making it clear that doping is not acceptable” and “should emphasize that drug-taking behavior is fundamentally contrary to the principles and precepts of sport – that is, against the spirit of the sport.”

The statement is published in a special issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

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