Progress Update

by Rant on April 6, 2014 · 5 comments

in Doping in Sports

Getting a bit quiet in these parts. I haven’t inhabited this space for more than a couple of months now. Time flies, I guess.

Six months ago today, on a day with similar weather (minus the morning rain), I went out for what I thought would be a nice fifty-mile circuit of one of my usual routes here in the northern suburbs of Milwaukee. Cool temperatures and a great looking day ahead, at least, that’s what the weather forecast said. Six and a half miles from home, on sharp right-hand corner, fate had a different plan. In a spot where the local community had recently sprayed the road with a petroleum-based sealant, where they also used a kind of liquid goop to fill in cracks in the road (stuff that’s slippery as ice even on a dry day), and where there was a sheen of moisture on the pavement, my front wheel washed out and I hit the deck, hip first. When I tried to stand up, I couldn’t put any weight on my right leg, the first sign that I’d managed to break my hip.

Strange thing, that crash. I’ve hit the deck going much faster and walked away with bruises and road rash. This time, I wasn’t so lucky. But even when I came out of surgery later that day, my hip pinned back together with titanium deck screws ($1000 a pop, according to the hospital bill), I wouldn’t have guessed that my recuperation would take this long.

Six months later and I’m not quite 100 percent. I can swim, and have been four days a week since late January. That’s certainly helped my recovery along. And I can walk on a treadmill or ride my bike indoors. I suppose I could even ride outdoors. What I can’t do is run for the next six months. Or walk with a normal gait. I’m getting better at this walking thing, and I’m doing really well with the swimming (fastest times in my 500 and 250 intervals in eons). But I’m not quite normal.

Which makes me realize just how incredibly determined (or more likely foolish with a dose of massive painkillers and other medicinal products) Floyd Landis must’ve been to be racing within months after his injury. I guess when your living depends on it, you’ll muster up the courage (or craziness) to do just about anything.

But thinking back to the night of Sunday, October 6, 2013, I’m pretty sure I believed that by now I’d be back to my old self, doing everything I’m accustomed to and carrying on. Hasn’t worked out that way. Let me tell ya, folks, you don’t ever want to go through this. More and more, it’s looking like it will be another several months or more before I’m back to where I want to be. All things considered, though, it could have been much worse. For that, I count myself very lucky.

So here’s a couple of items on doping that caught my eye since last I posted.

Better Late than Never Department

This morning I saw this editorial in today’s New York Times. Turns out the Jockey Club, an influential group within the world of horse racing,  now supports legislation to put the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) in charge of conducting testing and enforcing rules against doping within the sport. From another NY Times article:

The club’s chairman, Ogden Mills Phipps, conceded that efforts to reform the sport from within had moved too slowly, and in some cases not at all. The industry has come up with a national uniform medication program after years of embarrassing scandals, but only 4 of the 38 states with racing have fully implemented it.

[…]

“It is my hope that these state bodies use all the prosecutorial powers available to determine if there is evidence of animal cruelty, medication violations — and cheating,” Phipps said.

[…]

He continued: “And as much as it pains me to see our industry being denigrated in the media, there is another part of me that feels that we, as an industry, deserve every bit of that criticism because the sport’s rules and our penalties have not been effective deterrents.”

Pop quiz: Doping began in which sport:

  1. Horse racing in the early 19th century
  2. Swimming in the mid-19th century
  3. Cycling in the late 19th century
  4. Track and field (a/k/a Athletics) in the late 19th century/early 20th century

If you chose A, congratulations, you know your sports doping history. And you’re aware that doping in other sports grew out of doping in horse racing (and sometimes it was done to slow animals down, way back when). So it’s only taken about 175 to 200 years of doping to get to this point? Say it with me now, “About damn time.”

Bulletproof Anti-Doping Test

Meanwhile, this article from about six weeks ago looks at whether there might be a “bulletproof anti-doping test” on the horizon. The idea is to find “a distinctive, long-lasting genetic ‘fingerprint’ left by [doping products].” From the article:

[Yannis] Pitsiladis, whose background is in genetics, thinks the secret to a foolproof test may lie inside cellular anatomy. He spent years picking through the DNA of East African runners, looking for a source to their prowess. But he couldn’t find a genetic cause. In fact, he started to wonder if they were just doping, and that suspicion led him to search for evidence of cheating on a genetic level, specifically in RNA.

Interesting idea, but what about athletes who use a drug legitimately, but who years later come up positive based on such a test. For example, when Lance Armstrong was being treated for cancer, he received EPO. A legitimate medical use. Now, suppose he had really raced clean (yeah, right, I hear you say…). With a test like this, he could have might have come up positive for doping. Would such an athlete need what amounts to a life-time therapeutic use exemption to cover such a situation? And if so, would that, in essence, give him or her a license to cheat? (After all, with the TUE, the result could be explained away.)

The article does manage to address such problems.

Tests like these still have a long road ahead before they reach the locker room. A flaw could let cheaters slip through, or — arguably worse — generate false positives. Because these tests rely so heavily on secondhand evidence — protein patterns and RNA levels, rather than banned substances themselves — researchers face a particularly high threshold to prove their accuracy. They are left splitting hairs, distinguishing between natural processes in the body and artificial ones that look similar. For example, when people travel to higher elevations, their bodies naturally make more EPO to increase blood cell production. Would that look like doping to Pitsiladis?

Definitely a long road to go before such a test could be implemented, and I suspect it won’t be ready in time for the next summer Olympics, even though the article suggests it might. In the struggle to figure out who’s cheating and who isn’t, scientists definitely have to think creatively about what types of tests might work. It will be interesting to see if this type of test comes into use in the future.

Post to Twitter

William Schart April 10, 2014 at 7:32 am

Sorry that your recovery is taking longer than you hoped, but glad to have you back here.

If I’m reading that article about the RNA testing, it sounds like there is only a temporary increase in certain RNA fragments as a result of doping. If so, the problem of someone who gets EPO legitamatly getting in effect a lifetime pass would not occur; a some point in time after a period of legitamate dose, the RNA effects would stop. But then I may be misreading things.

The big problem about this, and much other testing, is the expense. I’d imagine that testing a sample in this manner isn’t cheap, and the more it costs, the more likely that only a same sample of athletes will be tested at any time. Consider the former testing regime in the TdF: testing only 4 riders each day. The odds that any one rider would get tested was rather small as long as he neither won a stage or was first in GC.

Ultimately, in my opinion, the doping problem will only be solved when the athletes themselves decide that doping is not to be done. Kind of like those “unwritten rules” like don’t attack someone who has a mechanical problem or has stopped for a call of nature. Of course, we know these “rules” get broken from time to tine, as indeed any rule does, but if most of a population of athletes in a given sport decide that cheating by doping is a no-no, then ony occasionally will someone dope. And maybe, just maybe, the peloton (or whatever in other sports) will administer its own punishment for suspected dopers. But maybe that’s too much to hope for.

Rant April 11, 2014 at 9:52 am

William,

Good points. Regardless of how long residual effects stick around, the big sticking point as far as how effective any test is revolves around how much it costs. If the tests are pricey, fewer will get done, and the deterrent just isn’t there.

It sure would be nice to see a change in the sporting culture where the athletes decide that doping is not an acceptable method to be used in preparation or in competition. There will always be a few who are tempted to cheat, and some who actually will. But maybe someday a story about someone who doped will be a rarity. One can hope, anyway…

William Schart May 1, 2014 at 3:53 pm

Things have gotten rather slow over here. Maybe this will stir things up:

http://espn.go.com/sports/endurance/story/_/id/10867305/reilly-life-goes-lance-armstrong

I can kind of understand where he is coming from, even if I don’t approve of all that he’s done. Undoubtedly, the whole cancer thing has been the worse thing that has happened to him, and compared to all that, there is little if anything that can have the same impact on his life.

William Schart May 6, 2014 at 8:24 pm

Here’s an interesting article about the new UCI president and what he is doing to (hopefully) clean up the sport and the organization.

http://espn.go.com/sports/endurance/story/_/id/10887305/howard-new-cycling-chief-brian-cookson-working-clean-sport

Rant June 19, 2014 at 7:06 pm

Wow. William, my apologies. Haven’t been around here much lately (as you can tell). Thanks for posting those links. Got a new piece coming soon.

Previous post:

Next post: