Anti-doping expert: “Doping control during Olympics is a waste of resources”

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Disclaimer: All translations here are done by me (Rókur í Jákupsstovu) from Danish on Ingeniøren. Please read that text if you can, to avoid possible misunderstandings.

Swedish scientist and anti-doping grand old man Professor Bengt Saltin is still able to provoke people, despite of formally having retired after 40 years in the business. This week WADA’s Science Director Dr. Olivier Rabin hurried do defend his organization after scolding criticism by Saltin and others in the British Journal of Pharmacology, stating that blood doping practices are likely to remain for several years to come (with current anti-doping control practice), and that IOC’s promise of the London 2012 Games being the cleanest ever is “faint”. Read (in Danish) Ingeniøren

In October 2011, WADA and London organizers launched the ‘Win Clean’ anti-doping campaign, warning “those who might be looking to illicitly performance enhance that the UK is taking stringent measures to make London 2012 the cleanest Games ever”. And in January they unveiled the biggest and most high-tech ever anti-doping operation, where over 6250 samples will be analysed throughout the Olympic and Paralympic Games, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, by a team of more than 150 anti-doping scientists and 1,000+ staff.

But Saltin says it is all in vain and grandstanding, according to Danish website ing.dk:

‘It is a waste of resources. It is not during the games themselves that we catch the doping culprits – there we maybe catch a handful. We saw it during the Games in Beijing – 4,500 doping samples were taken to be analyzed for testosterone – but if the athlete is to get the full benefits of taking steroids, he or she takes them before the competition – at least 3 months before the Games. It was embarrassing, and now they do it again. The resources should be used in the year leading up to the event. This is where one should intensify the number of doping controls. That is what we are trying to tell with our article,’ explains Bengt Saltin.

The article in the British Journal of Pharmacology focuses on blood doping, which according to Saltin hasn’t seen any revolutionizing improvements in doping detection despite of having been used at least back to 1984, mainly because of lack of national interests in the countries involved. It is the only effective method for us to keep up with the development, but there hasn’t been any interest for it.

‘We can simply not keep up. If you look at the production of EPO in countries like for instance Russia, China and India, it has risen with 20 percent or more. We have proposed a law that forces the pharmaceutical manufacturers to put markers in the products on the anti-doping list, or that it is agreed that drug companies must report the molecular structure of their products to WADA, so that we can develop tests against it.’

In Saltin’s point of view, there are only two ways to fight doping: One is to look at the effects of doping, the other to work on significant changes in attitudes in sports culture. WADA’s biological passports introduced in 2009 is a big step in the right direction, able to determine if an athlete is using performance-enhancing substances and in principle even blood doping by monitoring changes in the period leading up to a competition, but unfortunately there are problems with having these tests taken, with lack of national interests and lack of support from WADA itself. The way the system is built up now, it is up to every individual country to get these tests done on their athletes during the year, but almost no elite athletes stay in their home country all year.

And then there is the culture, where Saltin thinks that athletes themselves could do more in the fight against doping, pointing to the uprise agains frauds in military and in the banking world. It could be an idea to introduce a whistleblower-system in the world of sports:

‘I am amazed that the culture is not attacked. The active athletes could themselves make a considerable effort – eg. by naming the competitors they know use doping. There is an incomprehensible unity within elite sport where you do not report on one another. I simply don’t get that. We have seen it in a very few cases, but there is has been people who themselves had a rather frayed image, as when Floyd Lands gave Lance Armstrong up. We’ve heard stories where cyclists met at a clinic and lay smalltalking on each their bed and were injected with their own blood, which they had tapped a few months earlier.’

Read the full interview on Ingeniøren if you can, all translations here are done by me (Rókur í Jákupsstovu), and a lot might have been misunderstood or translated badly.

Abstract from the research article in the British Journal of Pharmacology

Blood doping practices in sports have been around for at least half a century and will likely remain for several years to come. The main reason for the various forms of blood doping to be common is that they are easy to perform, and the effects on exercise performance are gigantic. Yet another reason for blood doping to be a popular illicit practice is that detection is difficult. For autologous blood transfusions, for example, no direct test exists, and the direct testing of misuse with recombinant human erythropoietin (rhEpo) has proven very difficult despite a test exists. Future blood doping practice will likely include the stabilization of the transcription factor hypoxia-inducible factor which leads to an increased endogenous erythropoietin synthesis. It seems unrealistic to develop specific test against such drugs (and the copies hereof originating from illegal laboratories). In an attempt to detect and limit blood doping, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has launched the Athlete Biological Passport where indirect markers for all types of blood doping are evaluated on an individual level. The approach seemed promising, but a recent publication demonstrates the system to be incapable of detecting even a single subject as `suspicious’ while treated with rhEpo for 10-12 weeks. Sad to say, the hope that the 2012 London Olympics should be cleaner in regard to blood doping seems faint. We propose that WADA strengthens the quality and capacities of the National Anti-Doping Agencies and that they work more efficiently with the international sports federations in an attempt to limit blood doping.

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