Having the 2012 Olympics in London ahead there is a number of discussions coming up again. And there is one topic I would like to focus on today. My blog mate Alina touched in her “I will keep pushing you” blogpost already on the topic of doping. And I found something really interesting regarding doping and a new technology of tracking drugs in blood and urine.
The Biological Passport
In fact this technology is not a new technology itself (as they are still testing blood and urine for drugs) rather the process is new. Usually, urine is tested a single time on common drugs like EPO or the level of haemoglobin and blood reticulocyte is tested. If the levels vary too much from “normal” values the tested sample will be considered “manipulated/positive“.
And here starts the conflict. Because athletes will claim, that they are suffering some mysterious disease and that is why their haemoglobin or reticulocyte levels are above average.
So, what the “Biological Passport” does is that data of biomarker levels in the blood are collected on a regular bases in order to figure out the average level of the different biomarkers of each individual. And if there are bigger changes found beyond the individual margin, this will be considered clear evidence to the cheating of the athlete. No excuses no more.
Deepak states in his blog that with the introduction of the passport in 2008 the number of tests with results beyond marginal values has dropped to only 4% (compared to 10% in 2007 and 14% in 2001). Obviously, this test is great success, however Deepak adds, its reliability is denoted 99.9% which implies that out of 1000 samples 1 will be wrongly tested “positive”.
Apparently there is ways to outwit the passport test as well. For example by employing micro doses of illegal substances it is possible to constantly remain within individual substance boundaries and the test will never state “positive” although drugs have been consumed, Grannygear objects.
Moreover, Grannygear argues that rider’s blood markers naturally change over the time of their career due to improvement in their performance and natural progression as athletes. And it is not clear whether this is accounted for in the biological passport programme or not.
Cervelo Co-Founder Vroomen states in his blog that he has not heard of riders being tested for the biological password between the end of the Tour de France 2010 tour and April 2011. He is wondering about the interval of the samples to be taken and a possible decrease once profiles are established.
Vroomen claims that for athletes the deterrent is not the fact that there exist those individual profiles but that there are constantly samples taken that keep track of changes and so would prove doping. (but if there are no tests on a regular bases, the are no reference values available)
Furthermore, Deepak and Vroomen talk about the cost of this technology. On the one hand the programme lacks transparency as athletes have not full access to their data. Which leads to defending biological passport cases in court which is quite expensive. (wouldn’t it be easy to avoid those cases by simply making it more transparent?)
And on the other hand the high cost of the programme inhibits the spread of usage. Deepak explains that an average laboratory test is about $400. Athlete Marion Jones was tested 160 times in her career which adds up to $64,000 for a single athlete. The UCI (International Cycling Union) spent about $8 million on anti-doping in 2007, which was 50% of their budget, he continues.
And if we then add the money spent on lawsuit in court there is not a lot of money left for further research and improvement of the passport.
Defending the biological passport
In response to Vroomen’s post the UCI gave a counter statement citing evidence to refute Vroomen’s unsupported claims.
In order to do so they provide statistics that “clearly demonstrate” that Vroomen’s allegations were incorrect.
General statistics for Blood Passport Tests only (excluding urine tests and Tour de France 2010) from July 1st 2010 until April 30th 2011 (period referred to by Mr. Vroomen):
This includes out-of-competition controls, pre-competition and in-competition controls on all major events during this period and team training camps.
CERVELO 01.07.2010 – 31.12.2010: 45
GARMIN(-CERVELO) 01.07.2010 – 30.04.2011: 68
The UCI considers Vroomen’s comments ’’unacceptable given the years of research and investment in this area“.
Good anti-doping test but poor publicity ?
I find it very interesting to see such a sensitive reaction to this one blog post. I am wondering about the reasons.
This new technology is recognized by international experts and it has become a reference used internationally, as stated by UCI on pedalmag.com. And there are people like grannygear that really see the value in the technology. It helped the cycling sport to not continue being ill-reputed due to the high number of athletes using drugs.
But it remains the question of the future development. There has already emerged the discussion about introducing it to more sports like swimming as there have been recently more drug abuse cases than before. But I haven’t heard of any action taken.
Why is it so difficult to spread the use of biological passport? Wouldn’t the different sports gain better reputation if viewers/ fans would know that their idols are not cheating? To me, this test seems like it provides a better result for the individual athlete. Personal data is compared to each other and it is not one fixed value that is always referred to for every athlete.
So, where does actually lie the problem of further implementation? Legal obstacles? Financial obstacles?
Are you convinced? Would you vote for it if there were democratic elections for it?