The sporting world’s latest doping bombshell landed last weekend, as sprinters Asafa Powell and Sherone Simpson of Jamaica and American Tyson Gay all tested positive for banned drugs. It was a jarring blow to track and field, tarnishing two of the four fastest men ever to run the 100-metre dash and a woman with three Olympic medals.
A trio of star athletes falling from grace on a single summer Sunday produced a modicum of outrage, but the wider response felt more like a collective shrug of resignation.
If fans cannot believe in natural athletic achievement, then an integral part of sport – the joy and exhilaration of seeing the bar raised higher – will lose much of its meaning. Fortunately, the future of doping detection already exists – a new way to weed out cheaters by benchmarking their bodies year-round. To restore the credibility of clean sport, officials need to rally behind the World Anti-Doping Agency, embracing new methods before cynicism gets any more firmly entrenched.
Revelations that champions broke the rules to gain an edge no longer seem to shock many fans, who are quick to view each new superlative performance with suspicion, wondering what illicit drug cocktail might have fuelled it. The enduring cat-and-mouse pursuit of cheating athletes by doping authorities shows occasional promise, but it has often turned out to be a false hope.
Traditional testing is too flawed to restore faith. A recent report on drug-testing programs, chaired by the Canadian lawyer and former WADA chief Dick Pound, bluntly concluded, “To date, testing has not proven to be particularly effective in detecting dopers/cheats.” Anti-doping measures are sporadic and underfunded, athletes are skilled at evading detection, and some national sporting authorities seem less than eager to expose their dirty athletes.
Cyclist Lance Armstrong, once among the world’s most celebrated athletes, passed more than 500 drug tests and vehemently denied doping for years before mounting evidence pushed him to Oprah Winfrey’s television confessional, to admit that he took banned drugs en route to each of his seven consecutive Tour de France wins.
But the next frontier in doping detection, dubbed the athlete biological passport, offers a promising way forward. Rather than trying to detect illegal substances in an athlete’s blood or urine, it tracks a set of “biological parameters” over time – blood levels, for example. An athlete can be suspended even without failing a drug test if medical experts determine their profile strays too far outside human norms. Where mildly abnormal results appear, an athlete can be targeted for testing.
So far, only a few sports such as cycling and swimming have adopted the passport, and current methods are mostly limited to tracking blood values, which are helpful in catching cheats in endurance sports. The science to add steroid and hormone levels is still being developed.
Mr. Pound’s report calls for the biological passport to be made mandatory in WADA’s world anti-doping code, which would compel most of the world’s sporting leagues and federations to adopt it. Some WADA officials agree, but need approval from their political masters – sporting federation representatives and government ministers, including Bal Gosal, Canada’s Minister of State for Sport. Regrettably, the political will to use biological passports more widely seems weak.
“If you’re optimistic, you want to think [biological passports will be mandatory] as soon as possible,” WADA director-general David Howman said in an interview. “If you’re realistic, it’s probably longer than sooner.”
Fear of passport-style policing is misplaced. The onus is increasingly falling on teams and their athletes to convince fans they are clean, and athletes are obviously tiring of the suspicion. Elite sprinters Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Carmelita Jeter abruptly walked out of a press conference on Thursday when questions turned to doping.
Athletes who are genuinely clean should be keen to have passports that attest to their honesty. The same day Mr. Gay, Mr. Powell and Ms. Simpson admitted guilt, cyclist and Tour de France leader Chris Froome notched a stirring victory on one of cycling’s most fearsome challenges. He dashed by his competitors on the 21-kilometre climb up Mont-Ventoux, only to be asked whether he had done it cleanly almost as soon as he reached the summit.
The next morning, Mr. Froome told a press conference he was “sad” at having to rebuff accusations after “the biggest victory of my life.” Striving to stamp out the conjecture, Mr. Froome’s team boss, Dave Brailsford, made a novel proposal: He would consider releasing the team’s voluminous training data – which records riders’ power output, performance and weight over time – if WADA would pick experts to analyze it. “Theoretically, the biological passport should be ... a whole picture of that individual, not just blood values,” Mr. Brailsford said.
The team then handed two years of Mr. Froome’s climbing data to French newspaper L’Equipe, whose in-house physiologist Fred Grappe declared it plausible without doping.
The biological passport will not be a doping cure-all, nor will it placate all critics. But officials have been losing the battle for clean sport long enough. With a tool that could help turn the tide at their fingertips, they cannot afford to keep dragging their feet.