Tag Archives: doping

When the perfect is the enemy of the good

Matt de Neef over at CyclingTips has posted a very good article exploring the arguments of Professor Julian Savulescu of Oxford University, who thinks (some, but not completely unfettered) doping in sport should be allowed.

Savulescu has the right credentials to make an argument here: he’s a professor of bioethics and also has a medical background. I would say that: my Honours year was spent in the same philosophy department where he earned his PhD (although he was there a few years before me, I believe).

The argument really splits into two key points:

  1. Because we will never be able to guarantee clean sport, trying to do so is pointless
  2. There’s a fine line between legal and illegal methods of enhancing physiology, and that line is sometimes so fine as to be meaningless

I disagree with both. Let’s examine the arguments.

If we can’t reliably catch cheats anyway, and there’s no clear reason why some performance enhancing substances and methods are legal and some aren’t, why don’t we just create a physiological definition of what is legal and be done with it?

My own view is that even if it’s deeply flawed, anti-doping does catch some cheats, and it forces others to moderate their cheating to at least some degree.

It’s a strange attitude to argue that anti-doping has to be perfectly effective before it is worthwhile. It’s not an attitude we apply in other areas of life: imagine if the government decided they can never hope to prevent all crime, so they’re disbanding the police force.

What about if we defined acceptable physiological ranges for key parameters (e.g. haematocrit, testosterone, HGH etc) and let athletes do whatever they want, as long as they stay within those ranges?

I think this situation is ethically problematic, because it creates an incentive to dope. Riders won’t just suspect their rivals are boosting themselves, they will know.

Defining acceptable physiological ranges will just encourage everyone to dose up until they are as close to the upper allowable limit as possible in all respects. You’d be crazy not to!

How does this affect amateur riders, and neo-pros, and those riding for continental teams where money is tight and medical supervision minimal? It just makes the gulf to the top level that much harder to bridge.

With the pressure of teams and salaries, may come expectation and demands to be a team player, against your own wishes. You only need to read accounts from the dark years of cycling to understand the pressure riders felt to dope even when it was illicit.

Putting aside the ethics for a moment, creating a homogenous physiological profile through legalised doping sounds to me like a recipe for boring racing.

Surely the natural variation in riders’ physiological abilities is one of the beautiful and unpredictable things about cycling?

In any case, cycling has already tried using defined physiological limits.

Back in the days before EPO testing, cyclists were allowed a maximum haematocrit count of 50. Exceeding this value earned the riders a few weeks out of competition, until their values came back below 50, with no further formal sanction.

The policy was a disaster.

The legal limit disadvantaged riders with naturally high haematocrit, at the expense of those with naturally lower values, who could take just enough EPO to bring them right up to the line.

Charly Wegelius gives a good account of this in his book, Domestique. Wegelius has naturally high haematocrit, and throughout his career had to be extremely careful not to exceed the allowed values, a fact which caused him considerable angst.

Doping with EPO was absolutely out of the question (not to mention pointless) for him. Meanwhile some of his rivals could dope to their hearts’ content, gaining huge benefits.

Identifying a “normal” or acceptable range is incredibly difficult, because the variation in human physiology can be huge. How do we account for physiological outmarkers with naturally high values?

So is defining a “safe” level of doping? Safe for whom?

It seems to me that the proposed solution, setting defined physiological ranges, brings us no closer to avoiding arbitrary distinctions than the current system of listing banned substances, while introducing huge ethical problems and probably making the sport less interesting.

Interesting discussion, but the devil is in the details once you start thinking about the practicalities.

I disagree with Savulescu, because I think the most likely consequences of legal doping are unethical, and bad in a sporting sense, but his argument does prompt us to critically re-examine why we think anti-doping is worthwhile.


Was Mick Rogers really stupid enough to take clenbuterol?

In late December, I wrote a piece for The Roar examining the circumstances around Mick Rogers’ positive test for clenbuterol in Japan, shortly after the Tour of Beijing.

Today, the Secret Pro, writing anonymously for CyclingTips, weighs in on the Rogers case with some comments from inside the pro peloton.

Go and read the original, but this quote stuck out for me:

“In the scheme of things, Japan Cup is equivalent to winning a regular Sunday club race. Why would anyone risk ‘preparing’ for that? People I’ve spoken to that have been around for a while says they haven’t heard of anyone taking clenbuterol in the past 20 years. You’d be ‘glowing’ for too long.

Every rider agrees that Mick’s case is a muck-up, but at the same time nobody is publicly jumping to his defense.

It makes no sense that anyone would take clenbuterol with the testing that’s done these days.”

Well, that’s what I reckon, too. The most effective drug in the world is practically useless to pro athletes if it’s easily detectable.

The Rogers case hasn’t publicly progressed since December, but murmurs about the possible next step are picking up.

Anyway, here’s what I wrote back in December.

Was Mick Rogers really stupid enough to take clenbuterol?

The news of Michael Rogers’ positive test for clenbuterol is a perplexing one for cycling fans.

A second positive test in China a few weeks later, by Belgium’s Jonathan Breyne (who subsequently attempted suicide) (http://www.theroar.com.au/2013/12/22/belgian-cyclist-attempts-suicide-after-positive-drugs-test/) has reignited discussion about this substance.

On the one hand, weariness and cynicism about doping continue to pervade the sport; but digging a little deeper into clenbuterol reveals the sporting world needs to have a serious discussion about this substance’s handling by authorities.

In cycling, the most famous case of clenbuterol doping is of course Alberto Contador, who was stripped of his 2010 Tour de France victory after testing positive and claiming that it was caused by eating a contaminated steak.

What’s often forgotten is the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) found that Contador had most likely ingested the clenbuterol accidentally in a contaminated supplement, and because of WADA’s strict liability rules he received a two-year backdated ban.

The CAS panel found that both Contador’s claim about contaminated steak, and the UCI’s contention that it was the result of a blood transfusion, were possible, but equally unlikely. Cases of clenbuterol contamination in meat seem to be vanishingly rare in Spain, and CAS ultimately found Contador’s excuse to be unsatisfactory.

You can read the CAS judgement here.

It’s worth pointing out that even the UCI and WADA didn’t allege that Contador had deliberately doped with clenbuterol, probably because there was so little of it (apparently 50 picograms) found in his urine.

The proud dopers over at Steroid.com suggest a daily dose of 40-140 micrograms per day, for men. This puts the amount of clenbuterol found in Contador’s body at approximately 1/1000,000th of an active daily dose.

The recent cases involving Rogers and Breyne will be very interesting, because clenbuterol contaminated meat in China is a different matter to in Spain.

Clenbuterol contamination is a well known problem with Chinese beef, due to its widespread use during beef production, and WADA and sports governing bodies have been warning athletes about the risks associated with eating meat in China for several years.

Indeed, Chinese Olympic athletes were apparently banned from eating meat in the lead-up to the London Olympics, such was the risk of positive tests.

Professional cyclists have no excuse for not being aware of this, and exercising extreme caution.

I haven’t seen reported anywhere the amounts of clenbuterol found in either of Rogers’ or Breyne’s samples, so we don’t know whether their respective positives are similarly low doses to Contador’s.

Both riders vehemently protest their innocence, but of course we’ve been there before.

However, I haven’t seen any serious commentators arguing that these riders were deliberately doping with such an easily-detectable substance, whose main benefit seems to be weight loss (not often a problem for cyclists at the end of a long season), for a relatively meaningless late-season race.

Rogers at the 2012 Olympics

Why would a cyclist use this substance?

According to Wikipedia: “It causes an increase in aerobic capacity, central nervous system stimulation, blood pressure, and oxygen transportation. It increases the rate at which body fat is metabolized while increasing the body’s BMR. It is commonly used for smooth muscle-relaxant properties as a bronchodilator and tocolytic.”

All of which seems useful for an elite athlete, and cyclists in particular, but some reading around some of the less ethical parts of the internet – bodybuilding sites – indicates that clenbuterol is used mainly for weight loss, particularly after an anabolic steroid cycle so that food intake can remain high without worrying about getting fat. (http://www.musclechemistry.com/upload/articles-new/65546-clenbuterol-faq-how-cycle-clen-clen-side-effects-doses.html)

Keeping lean just after you’ve stopped taking steroids is not the kind of use case you would expect from an elite cyclist during competition.

Especially when it’s possible to detect 1/1,000,000th of an active dose in urine.

You would have to be a complete moron to take clenbuterol as a professional cyclist.

Sure, we’ve seen some pretty stupid acts by dopers in the past, but the risk:reward payoff for this substance is absurdly stacked in favour of getting caught. I just don’t believe that Contador or Rogers are that stupid.

What we do know is that stories of clenbuterol contamination in Chinese food seem highly plausible. Lee Rodgers pointed this out in his piece earlier this week: a WADA-accredited laboratory found that 22 out of 28 recent travellers to China tested positive to clenbuterol.

If 78% of the (admittedly small) sample tested positive, it seems clear that the chances of ingesting some clenbuterol from Chinese meat are well beyond “possible” and verge on “very likely”.

It’s fair to ask why these riders were eating meat at all. It’s also worth asking how teams with their own chefs, dieticians, and staff (at least in Rogers’ case) could allow something like this to happen.

There is nothing in Michael Rogers’ statement to indicate whether or not he followed guidelines on avoiding meat. It’s possible he went ‘off-piste’ and ate a meal outside of the team environment. Perhaps he only ate in team hotels. We don’t yet know.

But there needs to be a serious discussion about whether eating a meal should be enough to ruin someone’s career and reputation.

At the moment, we have a situation where the rules about substances like clenbuterol (there is no allowable amount and testing for it is phenomenally effective) are extremely strict, but the known risk of accidental positives is high.

Riders are understandably not happy about this.

Garmin-Sharp’s young Australian rider Lachlan Morton put it succinctly on Twitter [He seems to have recently deleted his account – Ed]: “How do you know how your meat was prepared on the road?” (https://twitter.com/lachlanmorton/status/413478594845741056)

“I’m worried” (https://twitter.com/lachlanmorton/status/413478628047872000)

Robbie McEwen was similarly blunt:

McEwen also pointed out that there’ll be a long queue of riders trying to avoid racing in China next season:

The problem is that World Tour teams are compelled to race in the Tour of Beijing, so somebody is going to have to race there. The UCI has too much invested in China to simply stop racing there.

So what can be done?

In the short term, teams might have to go temporarily vegetarian while in China.

Failing that, they may have to bring their own meat supply in from Europe (or indeed Australia).

But these are just band-aid solutions to a deeper problem regarding banned substances which are known to be used in food production.

WADA needs to urgently investigate whether it’s appropriate to introduce a minimum threshold for returning a positive test for clenbuterol and other similar substances.

It could be far below the level of an active dose, while still remaining high enough to avoid positives from trace amounts found in food.

There is precedent in establishing accepted ranges for particular substances, particularly naturally-occurring substances like testosterone, or several blood cell values.

Clenbuterol does not occur naturally in the body, so this would be setting a precedent for synthetic substances.

For both Contador and Rogers, there is a sense in some cynical circles that this is an ‘Al Capone’ bust: they may have got away with plenty in the past, so getting them on a technicality is some kind of rough justice.

I understand the frustration with doping that engenders this attitude, but I don’t think it’s right to leave doping booby traps around for random riders to fall into.

We need to avoid a repeat of the situation this week, where a young rider (Breyne) attempted suicide because of a positive test that looks reasonably likely to have been caused by food contamination. Riders who are genuinely trying to behave ethically deserve some protection.

Bogus positives also serve to undermine the trust of riders and fans in the anti-doping movement, and this should be avoided wherever possible.

End of the Ride for Lance Armstrong

End of the Ride for Lance Armstrong

Embed from Getty Images

With the caveat that I’m thoroughly sick of discussing The Disgraced Texan, and the disreputable goings-on of the 1990’s and early 2000’s, this is a really excellent read from Juliet Macur in the New York Times.

The way doping was managed by major pro teams, through soigneurs who purchased and administered doping products, is not a new revelation. This has been widespread knowledge since the Festina Affair and the arrest of Willy Voet.

The typically methodical detail Macur brings to this piece is fascinating, and it illuminates what we already knew in a way that I think is well worth reading.