As two top athletes test positive for performance enhancing drugs. Rod McPhee looks at whether sport is winning the war against doping.
SPRINTERS TYSON Gay and Asafa Powell this week joined the likes of Marion Jones and Dwain Chambers on a depressingly long list of sports stars who have tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
From athletes to rugby players, cyclists to swimmers, the culture of doping stretches as far back as the Olympics when participants would use extracts from mushrooms and plant seeds to boost their physical abilities.
But it’s only within the last 70 years that sport has, on a widespread level, been tainted by using substances to unfairly tilt the playing field in their direction.
A handful of high-profile cases in recent decades - ranging from disgraced Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson to US Tour de France cheat Lance Armstrong - have created the impression that doping has intensified.
But Dr Sue Backhouse, who heads up research at Leeds Metropolitan University looking at doping in sport, says this is more about perception than reality.
“Anti-doping methods, systems and tests are constantly evolving,” she says. “An athlete may take a substance which isn’t, as yet, banned or can be tested for, but sooner or later that changes and they will get caught.
“It’s not just about testing now either. If you look at the example of cyclist Lance Armstrong, he didn’t test positive, it was intelligence-led investigations that resulted in him being uncovered.
“One thing we have to remember here is that Gay and Powell have yet to have the results of another test - if that proves negative then it opens a whole other ball game and puts a very different slant on the situation.”
The consensus seems to be that the testing regimes have deterred the majority of would-be cheats who were once discovered because doping was so prolific,. Now the testing regime is so rigorous it is merely uncovering, consistently, the remaining minority of dopers.
That may represent a convenient explanation, but it’s one supported by Richard Moore, a British sports writer currently reporting from the Tour de France.
“There are now people taking part in the race who I believe were doping previously, but now aren’t performing as they once were,” he says. “I don’t know for sure, but that’s what I suspect.
“And I suspect there are far fewer people taking performance- enhancing substances because they realise, especially since the Armstrong case blew up, that the risk of being caught is much higher.
“The trouble is that Armstrong could become a scapegoat for diverting attention from the use of substances in cycling, the way Ben Johnson was made a scapegoat for the problems in athletics when he was found to have been taking drugs in the 1988 Seoul Olympics.”
Out in paperback next month, Moore penned the book, The Dirtiest Race in History, which looks at the infamous 100m sprint which saw Johnson beat Carl Lewis and take home a gold medal. He was later stripped of said medal after testing positive for anabolic steroid stanozolol.
The author argues that the controversy surrounding Johnson covered up the glaring cracks surrounding the regulation of doping in athletics at the time.
“You had the International Olympics Committee organising the Olympics and fighting doping,” he says. “That represents a massive conflict of interest. And that only really changed when the World Anti-Doping Agency was set up in 1999.
“Since then they have taken substantial positive strides and people are getting caught. The fact that people are testing positive is as much a sign that the system is working more than anything else.
“Whenever there is a case like that of Gay and Powell in the public eye we always ask the question: what’s gone wrong with the system? Actually it’s not the system that’s at fault.”
The most glaring flaw is human nature itself. This notion is backed up by Dr Backhouse in particular.
“For so many sports stars they feel the benefits of cheating outweigh the risks,” she says. “What’s key is making them understand that the benefits really don’t outweigh the risks.
“What’s difficult here is tipping the balance in a world where being successful in sport can be very lucrative, especially if you win a title or race and land a multi-million pound sponsorship deal as a result.
“But now there’s talk of writing clauses into sports stars’ contracts stating that if they test positive then they may actually have to pay back any money they gained through sponsorship and endorsement deals.
“So, crucial to changing the psyche of sports stars, and central to them not just living in the moment, is making them see the extremely harmful, long-term consequences for themselves and their families on a basic and profound level.”
This is backed up by the fact that Adidas yesterday suspended their contract with US sprinter Tyson Gay. But there are even more serious potential outcomes for those caught taking performance enhancing drugs.
In 2010, ex Leeds Rhinos, Wakefield Wildcuts and Bradford Bulls player Terry Newton hanged himself after being sacked as a result of testing positive for the use of growth hormones. (The use of such a substance was effectively an “import” from down under where the widespread use of steroids among Australian rugby players remains a real problem.)
Yet even the threat of death won’t dissuade those determined to cheat.
Writing in Sheffield Hallam University’s Review magazine, Peter Charlish, one of the UK’s leading authorities on sports doping, illustrated the scale of the problem in stark terms.
He said: “There was a recent study of 198 top-class athletes which asked the question: ‘If you could win everything for the next five years by taking something but it would then kill you, would you take it?’ More than half of them said they would.
“That suggests the mind of a top athlete is different from ours. Even when you give them the death scenario, they are still prepared to do it.
“People want to win and in top-class sport the difference between success and failure is so small.”
So the solution to the problem, assuming there is a solution, may rest not so much in dissuading would-be cheats from taking performance enhancing drugs but in catching those who already do.
And science is taking great strides to ensure that happens.
One innovation is the ‘biological passport’.
“This is an individual, electronic record for professional athletes in which profiles of biological markers of doping and results of doping tests are collated over time,” says Charlish.
“Doping violations can be detected by noting variances from an athlete’s established levels outside permissible limits, rather than testing for and identifying illegal substances.
“Many cyclists have already been banned for biological passport breaches.”
But science may also introduce new problems too with the arrival of genetically-modified athletes. This is known as ‘gene-doping’.
Also writing in Sheffield Hallam University’s Review magazine, Dr Tom Bassindale, of the university’s biomedical research centre, said: “Recently the EU approved its first gene therapy, Glybera, to treat people with a genetic condition inhibiting the breakdown of dietary fat. As techniques become common, the potential for doping increases. The therapy becomes doping when it is used to switch on and off desirable characteristics for sports performance rather than to treat disorders.
“Gene doping may sound like a future of genetically modified athletes grown in test tubes, but it is a real and current threat to sports.
A history of drugs testing
1968: Drugs testing introduced at the Olympic Games in Mexico.
1988: Ben Johnson tests positive for steroids at the Seoul Olympics. 1991: East German swimming coaches admit giving steroids to swimmers throughout the 1970s and 1980s. 1996: Ireland’s Michelle Smith is found guilty of manipulating samples after coming from nowhere to win four gold medals at the Atlanta Olympics.
1998: The Festina team expelled from the Tour de France after being caught with performance-enhancing drugs.
1999: The World Anti-Doping Agency is formed.