Anti-doping agencies can't keep pace with the science of cheating
'You think you've closed a loophole and then they find another one,' says Canadian anti-doping expert
Anti-doping agencies will forever be stuck taking one step forward and two steps back as long as athletes and their governments are willing to take extreme measures to win, a Canadian pioneer in sports doping regulation says.
- WADA report says Russian government complicit in doping, coverups
- ANALYSIS| Canadian athletes not surprised by Russian doping allegations
- Tricks of the trade: How athletes blood dope
A World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) report released Monday that accuses the Russian government of complicity in doping and coverups in track and field is proof that nothing changes, said Norman Gledhill, who co-founded Canada's doping control program in the '80s.
"Everything old is new again. This has been going on for years and years and years," Gledhill, a professor of kinesiology and health science at Toronto's York University, told CBC News. "When this all came out about Russia, I thought, 'Duh! What's new?'"
'Chasing your tail'
Greg Jackson, an expert in sports policy from Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., said the news didn't surprise him, either. Anti-doping policies have been ineffective since they were first implemented in the '60s, he said.
"A war on drugs approach, which is what the World Anti-Doping Agency takes towards doping in sport, I'm not sure it's worked anywhere," Jackson told CBC News.
A war on drugs approach, which is what the World Anti-Doping Agency takes towards doping in sport, I'm not sure it's worked anywhere.- Greg Jackson, Brock University
"I mean, they come up with new tests as new drugs and methods to dope are identified, but it's always been this idea that we'll punish athletes who break the rules and doping shouldn't be allowed. And obviously, it doesn't work."
It's a cycle Gledhill is all too familiar with. The anti-doping business, he said, is a scientific arms race. Every time a more advanced drug test is developed, athletes come up with a more sophisticated way to cheat it.
"It's like chasing your tail, frankly. You think you've closed a loophole and then they find another one," he said. "I mean, they have their own scientists. There's so much money involved in these things. And if it's a political thing, it's a country behind you trying to do it."
Condoms, catheters and the 'Whizzinator'
In the '80s, urine tests were less sensitive and it was easier to cheat.
"Back in those days things were fairly simple," Gledhill said. "[The athletes] would flush all kinds of fluids through their system to try and wash away the traces."
When the tests got better at detecting smaller traces of performance-enhancing drugs, dopers started switching out the samples, he said.
Women would insert condoms filled with someone else's urine inside themselves, he said. Some athletes would inject clean urine into their bladders using a catheter.
Then there's the Whizzinator, a prosthetic penis that can be filled with someone else's urine. Former Minnesota Vikings running back Onterrio Smith was suspended in 2005 when authorities found one, along with several vials of dried urine, in his home. Boxer Mike Tyson has admitted using one throughout his career.
Masking the truth
As drug testers started to catch on to these cheats, athletes began using chemicals to mask the performance-enhancing drugs in their systems, Gledhill said.
A 2009 Bloomberg investigation revealed that some athletes were using common household soaps to hide their use of erythropoietin, or EPO, a naturally occurring protein that increases red blood cells and boosts endurance.
Many soaps contain protease, an enzyme that breaks down EPO. Athletes would rub a powdered version of the soap on their hands, then urinate over their fingers.
When drug testers started asking athletes to wash their hands before the tests, some men began storing powder under their foreskin, reports the Guardian.
Transfusions and injections
Blood doping — the illicit process of increasing the amount of oxygen in the bloodstream to enhance athletic performance — has a decades-long history in the athletic world.
It came to the forefront in 2012 when Lance Armstrong admitted to Oprah Winfrey that he used different blood doping methods during his cycling career.
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (UADA) accused Armstrong of using a variety of methods to cover up the fact that he was injecting EPO or taking transfusions of his own blood, something that is extremely hard to detect.
One of the best methods to check for transfusions or EPO is to measure hematocrit, the volume percentage of blood made up of red blood cells. But the UADA accused team doctors of injecting Armstrong with saline, or salt water, to dilute his blood.
In recent years, drug testers have taken a different approach, adopting something called the Athlete Biological Passport. They regularly monitor an athlete over time and map their unique physiology so that doping-related abnormalities can be flagged.
But already, some athletes have started injecting smaller amounts of drugs over longer periods of time, a process called micro-dosing. Then there's the growing field of gene-doping, transferring genes directly into human cells to blend into an athlete's own DNA.
"So again, you work at it and you work at it and you come up with another technique," Gledhill said.
New policies, new culture
So how do we break the cycle? Jackson noted that in recent years, there has been a push for harm-reduction polices in sports.
"The idea would be to focus more on education and allowing certain types of performance enhancement, but to be done through medical professionals and in healthier ways," he said.
Gledhill said we must work to change a deeply entrenched sports culture of winning at any cost — something he admits is easier said than done.
"Trying to change the ethics, the ethos of wanting to win in sports, it's pretty hard to do. There are always people who are willing to do just about anything."
With files from Associated Press