Policemen sometimes talk about having to
constantly develop new strategies to combat crime: one day they come up with a
technique to, say, foil bank heists and the next the criminals find another way
of getting into the vaults.
And so it is with the fight against
doping in sport. An example is the usage of Erythropoietin, better known as
EPO. In short, this drug improves oxygen delivery to muscles, which in turn
improves the endurance capacity of athletes. It has been detected mainly in
endurance athletes such as those taking part in cycling stage races,
cross-country skiing and distance running, like marathons.
It is now generally accepted that synthetic
EPO was widely used prior to 2000, after which a reliable test for it was
developed by scientists and endorsed by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
Prior to that testing was done on haematocrit levels, the percentage of red blood
cells in blood.
It is normally around 45% for males and 40% for females and elevated levels
indicated artificial EPO usage.
In 1997 the Union Cycliste Internationale
(the UCI, international cycling’s governing body) introduced a rule that riders
testing above 50% haematocrit, were immediately disqualified and banned for two
weeks. Former top professional Robert Millar later commented that the 50% limit
was "an open invitation to dope to that level”, pointing out that normally,
haematocrit levels would drop during the course of a Grand Tour but suddenly
they were staying at 50% for “weeks at a time”.
In the early 2000s the first positive
tests for EPO were reported and the athletes (or, more precisely, the doctors
who were ultimately responsible for this sort of thing) had to find another
The ability to test for synthetic EPO
enabled anti-doping agencies to monitor natural EPO levels in athletes’ blood and
this became part of a new initiative, the Athlete Biological Passport
“The fundamental principle of the ABP is
to monitor selected biological (blood) variables over time that indirectly
reveal the effects of doping rather than attempting to detect the doping
substance or method itself,” explains WADA. In other words, a variety of tests
are done over time to establish an individual athlete’s biological parameters.
One of these would be how much EPO they have in their system naturally, and whether
it fluctuates due to training or environmental conditions, such as altitude, or
whether the fluctuation is artificially manipulated.
cheating athletes and their scientists have countered this by “micro-dosing”,
or keeping EPO levels at the top of the natural range all the time. So now we
in anti-doping agencies are having to refine the ABP to take into account
periods when there should be fluctuations - for example, during tapering (up),
a stage race (down over time) and when at high altitude (down).
And so it continues. Ed Warner, the
chairperson of UK Athletics, put it neatly when he said: “This is an arms race,
isn’t it? We have to use every tool available to us and the anti-doping
authorities to fight the good fight.”
In South Africa we at the South African
Institute for Drug-Free Sport (SAIDS) are tasked with protecting the rights of
clean athletes to compete in a drug-free sports environment. We are being
helped by scientists who are world authorities in their disciplines and I
believe they are developing systems that will be the equal of or better than
anywhere in the world.
That is, of course, not to say that we
are perfect: there have been issues in the past that we need to address. We
have been blamed for slow processing of cases (although these are often the
consequence of a string of factors beyond our control) and of maliciously
prosecuting individuals. On this latter allegation, I would like to stress that
part our mandate is essentially to stop dope cheats with our fear or favour.
The consequences of doping go beyond the
obvious advantages that these athletes gain and even the damaging physical
consequences associated with these drugs. They can have a fundamental effect on
the livelihoods of other athletes who are clean but are being robbed of prize
money by cheats.
That is akin to theft
and why we have to fight, and win, this battle.
Galant is the CEO of the South African Institute for Drug-Free Sport (SAIDS)
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