Olympics Post-Mortem/But Is It Meaningful?

by Rant on August 26, 2008 · 1 comment

in Doping in Sports, Floyd Landis, Olympics

Olympics Post-Mortem

This post started its life as just an Olympics Post-Mortem. Well, as far as that goes, much has been written and not much of it means a whole heck of a lot. For a rather complete list of doping cases that have surfaced since athletes first arrived at the Olympic Village in Beijing, one need only look at the previous post and the comments there. If you do, you’ll find references to the ten or so athletes who’ve been implicated in one form of doping or another.

My personal favorite is the story of the horses doped with what amounts to a hot pepper rub on their bellies. (Snark alert: Shouldn’t those kinds of rubs only be used on meat you’re barbecuing?) That’s got to win the award for the most creative form of doping in Beijing. Unless, of course, you count the “age doping” problem, wherein a supposed paperwork error made things look like one of the female Chinese gymnasts was too young. Color me cynical, but I wonder if the official peddling that story also has a bridge for sale. (Yeah, I know, that was pretty snarky, too.)

And I could write about that fact that so far, no positive tests for human growth hormone have come out of the Beijing Olympics. According to David Epstein’s article on SI.com, “proof positive is coming soon.” Well, we’ll see about that. Eventually, I’m sure someone will be caught with their hands in the HGH jar. Question is, like for all forms of doping, does it really work or is it just the latest form of snake oil? (Many say that it does work, but only when used in combination with other drugs like steroids.)

There’s more I could say about the Olympics. Biggest show ever. Many fewer doping cases than the IOC’s Jacques Rogge expected. Tough act to follow. The folks in London, my father’s hometown, will have a hard time living up to the standard that the Chinese set for pageantry and showmanship. I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with. Maybe I’ll be in London in 2012 to see for myself. Better yet would be to find a publisher who would pay my way. Well, I’ve got four years to figure that out, eh?

But Is It Meaningful?

What caught my eye today was an article that Larry posted over on Trust But Verify. He takes a look at the test used to find Floyd Landis guilty of doping at the 2006 Tour and asks a fundamental question. Not whether Landis doped or not, but whether the data from the tests means what we’ve been told it means.

There’s no doubt that the carbon isotope ratio (CIR) test, also known as isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS) can determine the difference in the amounts of various forms of carbon found in a chemical compared to some standard. The question is whether or not the cutoff that WADA and their affiliates use to declare an athlete’s sample positive for artificial testosterone is backed up by research.

So what’s the theory behind the test? Artificial testosterone is made from different building blocks than natural testosterone, so it will contain a different proportion of carbon-13 than the more predominant carbon-12. If you measure the ratio of one to the other, and compare it to some standard, then you’ll see a difference in the ratios. If the difference is big enough, WADA and their affiliates say that indicates the presence of artificial testosterone. But does it? Is WADA’s standard up to snuff?

In his research, Larry discovered that a number of important studies focusing on the CIR test (when used for detecting the presence of synthetic testosterone) yield some contradictory or conflicting results. Among those studies are ones conducted by some of the luminaries of the anti-doping world. Saugy. Catlin. Ayotte. Shackleton. And there’s an interesting study of 400 athletes at the Nagano Olympics in 1998, too.

Larry’s article is well-written. While it does get into some technical discussions, he keeps it simple and understandable throughout. He makes a number of good points. Including this one:

The lesson to be learned here is an important one: human biochemistry is complicated and diverse. We cannot expect that two people will react to a doping product in the same way.

And he concludes by saying:

[T]he CIR test for exogenous testosterone is based on a false sense of human homogeneity. People come in a wider variety of types than the CIR testers are willing to admit. We don’t have uniform delta-delta readings, we possess systems that are naturally capable of producing different delta scores for different substances, and we probably have different biochemical reactions to the same events.

Different stokes for different folks. One size does not fit all.

Larry’s article is the kind of argument that could have been presented to the arbitrators at either of Landis’ hearings, were his attorneys able to argue his case based on the science. The way the rules are written, however, arguing that the science behind a testing standard doesn’t hold up is a non-starter for an athlete’s defense. This restriction does not serve the greater good. It’s only when the science can be challenged, and when the scientists can show results that hold up to those challenges, that we have a solid tests. With the kinds of conflicting research results that Larry points out, it’s hard to have much confidence that the current standards of “proof” are acceptable.

Whether or not you think Floyd Landis is guilty or innocent, the concern Larry points out is very real. Regardless of whether the CIR testing can accurately measure differences between two different isotopes of carbon, does the current research support the way CIR testing is used to determine whether a doping violation has occurred. It appears not. And, it appears that further refinement is needed in how such testing is used in the pursuit of dopers.

Larry’s article is a must-read for anyone who’s interested in the subject of doping and anti-doping tests. Take the time to read what he’s written.

I’ll be back in a few days, with part one of a two-part interview with Mike Straubel, the head of Valparaiso University Law School’s Sports Law Clinic.

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William Schart August 27, 2008 at 8:04 am

Here’s something to ponder on, post-Olympics: where did Rogge get his prediction of 30-40 doping cases from? Was it some sort of calculation, based on known figures or did he simply pull something out of his . . . er, hat? And in either case, could he have inflated the estimate so that when the final tally was made, it would be significantly lower than his estimate, making anti-doping efforts seem that much better?

Nothing I have seen gives us a really solid picture of the nature and extent of doping in sports. We know it exists, but we don’t know how many athletes dope, how often, what they use, etc. There is a lot of speculation, based on things like performance, but really that all is rather circumstantial and far from conclusive.

So, I say that the Olympic PM isn’t really too meaningful, other than for the cases confirmed so far.

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