South Africa

Why we have to win the battle against doping

2015-08-25 12:33
Khalid Galant (Supplied)

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 technique.

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 (ABP). 

“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.

The 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.

Khalid Galant is the CEO of the South African Institute for Drug-Free Sport (SAIDS)

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