Concerns that success in this month’s Olympics will go to athletes who are using undetected drugs seems to be increasingly widespread as the opening ceremony approaches. I think they can learn something from professional cycling.
As I’ve said before on this blog, I’m a fan of the sport, despite the fact that it has probably been as deeply immersed in a culture of perfromance-enhancing drugs as any other sport. During the most recent Tour de France, about half a dozen riders failed drugs tests and were both despatched from the Tour and fired by their teams.
Some of them, including the young Italian climber Ricardo Ricco, winner of stages in both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France, thought they were taking a version of the blood enhancing drug EPO, called CERA, which was so recent that it was undetectable by the tests. Indeed, the very aspects of CERA which make it a boon for patients (it can be applied far less often because it releases slowly into the bloodstream) should also have made it harder to detect in tests,
So what do we learn from all of this? First, that the Tour de France organisation, ASO, went into the Tour with a clear agreement with all the teams. They got to take part only by signing up to a tough anti-doping position. (Astana, the team for which the 2007 winner Alberto Contador now rides, was excluded because of concerns about their pervious history).
The second is that if you’re a professional cyclist, your blood profile (“biological passport“) is no longer your private property. Profiles of all risers, maintained over time, anble investigators to see anomalies. It’s thought that some of the riders who tested positive, including Ricco and Lance Armstrong’s former lieutenant Manuel Beltran, were targeted for tests because of incosistencies in the profile.
The third is that co-operation with Roche, the manufacturers of the products used for doping is essential – which is why CERA was detectable.
And the fourth is that it remains an inexact science: Ricco said later that he’d been tested around ten times while using CERA, but only two had produced a positive test.
Perhaps this isn’t surprising. The whole machinery of drugs testing is still very young. The World Anti-Doping Agency was founded only in 1999, its code implemented by sports organisations only in 2004. David Millar, the British cyclist who was banned for two years for EPO use, and is now a co-owner of Slipstream/Garmin/Chipotle, which is committed to clean cycling, put it this way:
“What everybody really forgets is that the anti-doping world is so young. WADA has only existed nine years, and the online whereabouts system was only put online this year.”
Slipstream, along with CSC (the team of the winner Carlos Sastre) and Team Columbia (previously Team High Road, the home of the young British sprint star Mark Cavendish) have implemented regular private testing to make sure that they are clean and seen to be clean. (CSC’s anti-doping programme report can be found here, in pdf). Slipstream also requires its riders to be trackable at all times via GPS. (A cyclist who wants to be seen to be clean has to kiss their privacy goodbye). It’s also addressed the problem at a third level, by having the whole team based in one location, Gerona in Spain, during the racing season rather than being scattered across Europe. This reduces the likelihood, and temptation, of riders being exposed to outside influences.
The final element, as far as cycling is concerned, is the response of the sponsors. Barloworld and Saunier-Duval, which both had riders expelled from the Tour for drug use, each announced almost immediately that they were pulling out of sponsoring the sport. Being associated with drugs use isn’t good for the corporate image. This should increase peer pressure on riders not to use drugs, although there’s an interesting conflict here between the “common good” of a clean sport and the “private interest” of a rider seeking to improve their marketabilioty through better performances.
From the perspective of the Olympics, it’s easy to believe that athletes – and their countries – would rather turn a blind eye to drugs use if it means winning medals. So perhaps one of the most encouraging elements of the ‘Dwain Chambers affair’ and Chambers’ unsuccessful legal battle to be allowed to compete for the team despite his previous drugs-related ban, was the utter disdain for Chambers expressed by most of his fellow athletes.