Writer: Bill Endicott | World Paddle Awards
Doping threatens to destroy the integrity of competitive sports, including paddlesports. It seems like every day some new athlete gets sanctioned for doping. Some are even sanctioned retroactively for doping years ago. Whole teams are being banned from the Olympics.
But even the agency responsible for drug testing says “testing has not proven to be particularly effective in detecting dopers/cheats” and admits many athletes are able to defeat existing testing methods.
Various solutions have been proposed ranging from much more costly drug testing with tougher penalties, to legalizing doping but putting it under doctors’ supervision and beefing up athlete education programs. But all have flaws. It’s not clear what is the right solution is but we’ve got to find one.
That begins with an informed conversation about what’s going on. [If you would like to contact us: email@example.com]
Got to face the facts
It’s time to “get real,” folks. Time to ask some really unpleasant questions about whether doping is ruining the integrity of sport and rendering sports competitions a farce.
Are performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) affecting paddlesports as much as other sports? Are the current methods of dealing with the problem working?
Are we gaining ground on the bad guys or are they likely to always be a few steps ahead of the drug testers?
What would it take to develop better testing methods and test more athletes more effectively and what would it cost and who should pay?
Should the penalties for doping be much more stringent, such as a life-time ban for the first offense and disqualification of whole teams for a period, or even bouncing entire sports out of the Olympics until they clean up their act?
Are some of the organizations involved in testing corrupt and unless we fix that other changes won’t matter much?
And here’s the most unpleasant question of all: should doping just be legalized and put under the supervision of doctors and other medical experts so it could be used safely or at least athletes could be carefully apprised of the risks involved?
Now, normally I don’t like to write about a problem like this without also posing a good solution. But this time, I have to confess, I just don’t know enough about the problem to be able to do that yet.
However, after you’ve read this article, I think you’ll agree I’ve at least laid out a prima facie case that what we’re doing now is not working well and that there are big obstacles to ever making it work well.
Bottom line: we in paddlesports need to face the facts, openly discuss them, and figure out what to do about them. We can’t just pretend there is no problem because that just makes us guilty of participating in a sham, of degrading the sport we all love so much.
I hope what I’m writing here will stimulate readers to write in and add information and their thoughts about what we should do.
“No Dope, No Hope”
In sports like cycling and track and field and professional sports, it‘s undeniable there’s a widespread perception that if you don’t dope, you can’t win.
According to Wikipedia, for example, in the Tour De France, 14 of the 25 most recent winners (56%) have either tested positive or have confessed to doping. Together with those testing positive, but never sanctioned, 68% of the winners evidently doped. Lance Armstrong, of course, is the most well-known example of this. And those are just the winners – what about everybody else? The list would probably go into the thousands.
Also according to Wikipedia, in just track and field alone (also known as Athletics) about 880 athletes and coaches have either tested positive for banned substances, administered banned substances, or admitted they had doped even if they weren’t caught. This includes those who used to be my Olympic heroes, Al Oerter, Carl Lewis and Marion Jones.
And most recently, we have the problem of the whole Russian track and field team exposed by a German TV documentary in December, 2015, alleging that 99% of the team doped. Should the whole team now be banned from the Olympics?
In American football, it’s said that doping is rampant — even at the high school level. In baseball, Jose Canseco stated on 60 Minutes and in his tell-all book Juiced that as many as 80% of the players used steroids, and he credited steroid use for the success of his entire career.
So, “Houston, we have a problem!” as they say.
But how bad is it in paddlesports?
OK, so there’s a big drug problem in other sports. But what about paddlesports? Maybe it’s not a big problem there? Maybe we don’t have to worry about it?
Well, I’m afraid we do have to worry about it. In just sprint racing in the Olympics, for example, in addition to the stories about East German sprint kayakers being doped in the past, more recently at least 30 sprint athletes are known to have failed drug tests. Their names are in Appendix A.
Then, in slalom there is the case of Russia’s 2010 C1 Junior World Champion, Kiril Setkin. RUSADA, the Russian anti-doping agency, suspended him for 6 months in September, 2012 for a doping violation.
I don’t have information about other paddlesport disciplines, so I can’t say anything about them. But it looks as though we have a serious problem in sprint and maybe one in slalom and my fear is we may have problems in other paddlesports disciplines, as well.
Current State Of Drug Testing
Although the use of stimulants and strength-building substances in sports has been around forever, the first Olympic drug testing came in 1968. By the 1970s, most international federations had introduced drug-testing.
The reason for banning doping was originally to protect athletes’ health. But over the years, the equality of opportunity for athletes, and the exemplary effect of drug-free sport for the public have been added to the list. Anti-doping authorities state that using performance-enhancing drugs goes against the “spirit of sport”.
Who Does Drug Testing?
- INTERNATIONAL. The international coordinating body for anti-doping in Olympic sports is the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). It doesn’t actually do most of the drug testing — national bodies (see below) do. WADA was established by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1999 to promote, coordinate, bring consistency to, and monitor the fight against drugs in sports. Their website is https://www.wada-ama.org.
- Today WADA is an independent entity funded half by the IOC and half by various national governments. (See https://www.wada-ama.org/en/funding-by-governments for more information on this point.) See Appendix B for a more precise listing of what WADA does. The IOC also created the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which settles disputes arising over alleged drug violations and other things, instead to submitting them to normal law courts.
- IOC at the Olympics. Under the auspices of WADA, the IOC conducts drug testing at the Olympics. This is known as the “Olympic Standard,” the strictest standard of all, and some pro sports have attempted to emulate it by doing their own drug testing following the Olympic Standard protocols.
- National Anti-Doping Organizations (NADOs). Each country has its own anti-doping agency that is supposed to ensure clean sport in its country by doing out-of-competition drug testing. That’s because athletes can benefit tremendously by using a banned drug in training, but then stop early enough to have it wash out of their systems by the time they get drug tested at the Olympics, but still have benefitted significantly from the drug. A drug that would speed recovery between workouts is an example because it would enable you to do more workouts and thus improve faster.
- In the USA, the NADO is the U.S Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), which manages the anti-doping program. That includes in-competition and out-of-competition testing, and athlete education for national governing bodies of all US Olympic Committee (USOC) recognized sports.
- Other organizations. In US collegiate sports, for example, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) spends more than $6 million annually on drug testing and education in an effort to deter doping among college athletes. Major professional sports conduct their own tests but there is no uniform standard there.
Currently, the WADA prohibited list contains more than 200 items, divided into 5 classes of substances and 3 methods of doping that are banned at all times, plus a further 4 substances banned during competition. See Appendix C for more detail about these. (The entire list can be found at https://www.wada-ama.org/en/resources/science-medicine/prohibited-list.) Undoubtedly as time goes on, more and more items will be added to this list.
How Good Is The Testing?
Not very good. according to WADA’s itself. According to the 2012 “Report to the WADA Executive Committee on the Lack of Effectiveness of Testing Programs,” from a working group set up by WADA “…there are clearly many systemic, organizational and human reasons why the drug testing programs have been generally unsuccessful in detecting dopers/cheats…. To date, testing has not proven to be particularly effective in detecting dopers/cheats.”
On paper, the IOC has taken a more proactive stance on doping than any other organization in the world. But on the other hand, enforcement is often the sole responsibility of each country’s NADO and standards vary.
In the US, for example, USADA has a list of 433 US athletes and coaches who have received sanctions for doping. A review of those show that only 15 have gotten lifetime bans. That’s less than 4%. There are many 2-year suspensions and suspensions for less than a year.
Question: would a lifetime ban for first offense be more effective? Without something like that, when you’re weighing the benefits of winning by doping against the chance that if you get caught you’ll only suffer a 2-year ban or less, that’s a pretty big temptation to take the chance and cheat.
And what about Therapeutic Use Exemptions? There have been allegations that some athletes are being allowed to use otherwise banned substances because they can get a doctor’s letter claiming they have a disease or condition that needs to be treated. Should this be better policed?
Then there’s the issue of “provisional Olympic Champions.” That’s my term for the fact that the IOC has an 8-year statute of limitations on sanctioning you for a doping violation. They store your sample for 8 years and if they develop a better test in the future, they can go back and sanction you retroactively.
This seems pretty lame to me. The athlete wins his Olympic medal, goes home and enjoys the benefits of that for a few years until they wear off, and then down the road someone says “Oh, by the way, tough luck, old boy or old gal, they’ve decided you cheated years ago.”
Yes, it’s an attempt to salvage something for the athlete who was deprived of a higher placing due to a drug cheat.
But isn’t it just an admission that current drug testing is not very good? In my opinion, they’ve got to get it to a point where there is no retroactive action, just action taken at the time and that’s it, no “double jeopardy” where they get to keep trying you.
Can Testing Be Better? At What Cost?
n 2013, “The Conversation,” an independent Australian source of news and views based on academic research, did a cost-benefit analysis on anti-doping systems in European football (soccer). It found that even by spending tens of millions of dollars you wouldn’t catch every cheat. It also found that such things as improving the scientific sophistication of tests to increase detectability and sensitivity, and increasing testing frequency will all improve testing — but it will come at a significant cost, about $20,000 – 30,000 per athlete per year.
Multiply this by the number of footballers in, for example, a single club, and you’re looking at spending a minimum of $1 million per year annually on drug testing just for that one club alone.
If that’s roughly the same situation in Olympic sports, it means many millions of dollars for most countries – many of whom can’t afford it — and even then it doesn’t guarantee that better cheating methods won’t be invented.
In 2014, German economics professor and former Olympic Champion in rowing, Wolfgang Maennig, using information obtained from WADA, estimated the entire anti-doping system under WADA’s guidance, costs at least $228 million per year, mostly to cover the cost of performing about 270,000 doping tests. The Harvard Business School put the figure at $228 million to $500 million a year.
On top of this, you have the WADA budget that would have to grow in order to develop better testing. That budget is now about $27 million a year, paid for by the IOC and various governments.
Is the Biological Passport a Panacea?
Some people have said that creating a “biological passport” for each athlete is a simple way of ending the doping crisis forever, a way to avoid a never-ending and increasingly costly game in which doping testers create another test only to find out later that athletes have figured out a way around it.
Simply stated, the principle of the biological passport is that it’s possible to detect the effects of doping without ever having to find the drug that caused it.
A biological passport, now used in some sports such as cycling and track and field, is a record of some biological traits of an athlete through blood testing and urine testing done at regular intervals. This way, testers will only have to detect changes in the body, and if they’re deemed to be too big too fast, then the athlete is presumed to have doped and is sanctioned.
In the case of blood doping, for example, if the athlete’s normal red-blood-cell count is, say, 47%, but then is found to be 51% after a competition, the assumption would be that he or she doped.
WADA believes the biological passport could even deter genetic changes, which close observers feel will be the next attempt to cheat. If an athlete inserts a performance-enhancing gene, it will leave a change in the body that would differ from the athlete’s profile in the biological passport and therefore be disqualifying.
It’s also argued that if implemented correctly, the biological passport might even eliminate the influence of corrupt officials, NADO officials who destroy test samples to hide evidence of doping, as has been alleged in the latest case involving the Russian track and field athletes.
But there are criticisms of the biologic passport:
- The reputable British medical journal, The Lancet, did a study on biological passports that concluded there is a significant risk of the anti-doping authorities misinterpreting the physiological variations of the blood parameters. The variability in responses to training and competitions and/or to different metabolic energy demands, hypoxia treatments, etc. are big enough, The Lancent concluded, that they could lead to an increase in false-positives when using the biological passport and that could severely disrupt major sports events like the Olympics.
- As an article in the Duke Law Journal points out, there are significant legal issues relating to convictions of doping violations by biological passports alone. This is because the evidence would only be circumstantial and there may not be a smoking gun, no old-fashioned confessions, police raids, or whistle blowers. In close calls, therefore, malefactors would probably have to be given the benefit of doubt and get away with it.
- It’s known that some athletes are now trying to “fool” the biological passport by doing things like micro doping and micro transfusions to build up a false passport.
- The USA’s Travis Tygart, head of USADA and responsible for taking down Lance Armstrong, says of the biological passport, “We’ve been real clear. It’s not a cure-all. Not yet.”
- Costs. It costs about $6 million to implement cycling’s biological athlete passport program, with the money coming from pro teams, cycling’s international governing body and other organizers and competitors. This suggests an additional cost of millions of dollars to the international governing bodies of other sports wanting to institute such a program.
Corruption in drug testing
Say you fixed all the technical problems with drug testing and could pay for it. But what happens if the folks administering the tests don’t want to do it right? Some examples:
- In 2003,Carl Lewis admitted that he failed 3 drug tests at the US Olympic Trials, which under the rules at that time, should have kept him off the US Olympic Team. But instead he was given a pass. Lewis is reported to have said: “There were hundreds of people getting off. Everyone was treated the same.” Apparently he was right, too, because between 1988 and 2000, allegedly 114 positive US drug tests were covered up.
- We have the recent WADA report about the Sochi Olympics saying among other things that more than 1,400 positive drug-test results were destroyed, some at an unaccredited lab, in order to keep them from WADA; bribes were accepted by high-level IAAF officials to ignore positive doping tests; and the whole thing was orchestrated by the Russian government.
- Similar charges have been levelled against Kenya stemming in part from the claim of one Kenyan athlete saying the Kenyan governing body had given him a two-year suspension because he was unable to pay the 500,000 Kenyan shillings bribe (about $5,000) required to cover up a failed drug test.
- On April 21, 2016, WADA suspended the accreditation of Beijing’s National Anti-Doping laboratory, weeks after launching a probe into allegations of doping in Chinese swimming. The probe had been launched because a whistleblower from within Chinese swimming told the British newspaper The Times that the lab had covered up 5 positive tests ahead of China’s Olympic trials.
Need I go on? If this sort of thing is happening, then what good does it do to spend millions of dollars to make better testing? What we’d really need is some way of taking the testing out of the hands of the NADOs, and putting it in the hands of a truly independent, non-corruptible body — and figuring out how to pay for that.
Should doping be legalized?
Is the battle against doping like the battle against liquor in the United States in the 1930s that led to the constitutional amendment called Prohibition, but which proved so ineffective that it had to be repealed? Is it like marijuana use that has proven so rampant that it’s starting to get legalized? Is it like gambling that many countries realize can never be stopped so they just nationalize it and put it under government supervision?
Again, I don’t know the definitive answer to this, but I can tell you what other people’s arguments are for legalizing doping.
Take bioethicist professor Andy Miah of the University of the West of Scotland, for example. He argues doping should be allowed, but also that athletes should be informed of the precise risks involved. A regulatory body that lets athletes know what they’re ingesting, he argues, would go far to improve athletic health — the original argument for drug testing — beyond the current state of affairs in which athletes dope without really understanding what they’re getting into.
Such a regulatory body would point out how some drugs can be used safely. And for other drugs, in which there would be risks involved, it’s a matter of athletes fully understanding those risks and then deciding what to do.
There are already plenty of risks involved in sports participation and yet athletes take those risks now. Take boxing or American football, for example, where the object is pretty much to hurt people. Or overtraining syndromes that can cause problems in later life; these pretty much go with high level sports training.
Miah says there is a lot of “legal doping” going on already, such as vitamin supplements and creatine supplements and all the other things athletes take. And what about altitude chambers, which recreate the experience of training and/or sleeping in thinner air to help athletes build a bigger oxygen capacity? WADA approved such chambers in 2006 because they were felt to recreate a natural phenomenon. Ones to sleep in cost about $800; ones to train in cost thousands of dollars. Is this the “sprit of sport,” advanced as one of the main reasons for drug testing?
As long as it’s available to everybody, what’s the difference between the expensive altitude chamber and injecting someone with less costly natural growth hormones?
Miah feels human enhancement will become more and more common in everyday life anyway. “The current problems will become less apparent because the athletes of the future will be enhanced before they even begin training for an event,” he says. “The continual pursuit of enhanced life will lead to these things becoming normalized.”
You can see it’s happening already. You see it in the students who use drugs to improve studying and in medications to keep children calm.
None of this eliminates any of the personal effort and grit we admire in sports. Athletes would still have to train hard to maximize the advantage of drugs and to beat other athletes who have the same advantages.
It’s just that performances would be better and the whole expensive cat and mouse game of drug testing would go away.
A byproduct of the approach, proponents argue, would be, that just as innovations in Formula 1 racing cars eventually filter down to your family car, those drugs that athletes take to shave another tenth of a second off a personal best may also lead to life-enhancing drugs that all people could benefit from.
Ethics professor Julian Savulescu of the Oxford Centre of Neuroethics sums it up by saying that medically supervised steroids “are like more effective training, which has been achieved in other ways. That does not corrupt the nature of sport.”
If you, like me, were attracted to sports because you thought it was one of the last refuges where people could be judged on their merits on a level playing field without a whole lot of artificialities, then what are you supposed to think about all this? Here’s my take:
- Doping is widespread in sport, including in our sport, and the playing field is not level — unless you accept the notion that everybody’s doing it, which seems to be the belief in some sports. (But not in ours yet, at least as far as I know).
- The greater the prize — the more prestige and money for winning — the more widespread and sophisticated cheating mechanisms, including doping, will probably become. Therefore, in a perverse way, the more we work to gain recognition and rewards for our paddlesports athletes, the more likely we will increase the temptation to dope.
- Current drug testing has all sorts of flaws, ranging from lack of adequate and costly techniques to deal with it, to very intrusive and inconvenient requirements on athletes, to corruption among officials who are supposed to implement it but are willing to turn a blind eye for monetary gain. A lot of work would be required to make it better and the financial costs would be large.
- But compared to what? That’s the key question you always have to ask in situations like this. Compared to perfection we might not be doing so well. But compared to the alternatives — not doing anything to stop doping — maybe we’re doing OK. Maybe the playing field is actually more level now than it was in past Olympics, say, because we didn’t realize the doping problems then.
- Are we gaining on the bad guys? I don’t know! I’d like to hear the argument that we are. Because if we’re gaining, then continuing to do what we’re doing while constantly improving it makes sense, even if it costs a lot. But conversely, if we’re falling behind or will always be significantly behind, then maybe we need a different approach.
- Is it true that with a lot of drugs, there is a safe dose that will improve your performance and not harm your health, and if you exceed that dose, it won’t help but will harm your health? I’ve heard that argument advanced regarding steroids, that if they are administered by a competent physician, the optimum result will be achieved. Because if that’s true, then it adds to the argument for legalizing drugs, or at least some of them.
Bottom line. I’m trying to kick off a conversation, gathering information and listing arguments. I’m becoming more aware of what the proper solutions could be, I’m not there yet.
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