Biological passports loom as the true giant killers on the European pro cycling circuit this season.
The passports - electronic records of the normal state of an athlete's blood and hormone levels - are regarded as a "fingerprint" of what usually is going on in an athlete's body. Major departures from that are viewed as evidence the athlete or handlers have manipulated such things as the oxygen-carrying capacity for the blood - and an athlete can be suspended because of "indirect" evidence, without a banned substance ever having been found in a test.
"I believe it's legal and defensible in the world of sport," says Paul Melia, president of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport.
"One case has gone to the international Court of Arbitration for Sport and the scientific evidence was that doping had taken place relative to the body system."
The tests, approved by the World Anti-Doping Agency in December 2009 after consultation with a number of international sport federations, including cycling, skiing, biathlon, speed skating and track and field, are kept as electronic records of blood and urine analyses. They may be adopted by any sport, though not all have signed on.
Cycling, to battle a notorious doping record, began using a version of the biological passport as early as 2007 and did baseline testing of pro and Olympic-potential riders in 2008. The majority of tests were done out of competition, so it would be evident if blood manipulation was being carried out by athletes or their support staff in training or preparation for competition. The records will be in play during cycling's showpiece Tour de France, July 3-25.
A biological passport contains results of individual urine tests; results of individual blood tests; a profile drawn from a series of blood samples; a steroid profile consisting of the combined results of steroid levels in a series of urine samples.
The advent of the biological passport could open up a contentious grey area in anti-doping. The International Cycling Union has advised Spanish rider Manuel Vasquez Hueso that he is provisionally suspended based on a report from a lab in Barcelona of an "adverse analytical finding" for the blood booster EPO. It came in a March 20 target test, on the basis of information contained in Vasquez's biological passport. That suspension is in force until a hearing panel confirms whether he has committed a rules violation. In another sport, five-time Olympic speed-skating champion Claudia Pechstein of Germany was kept out of the Vancouver Games on a two-year ban for an abnormal blood profile at the 2008 all-around world championships. She never actually flunked one of the old-style drug tests, but appeals failed nonetheless.
"In the past, [positive tests]have always be predicated on the presence of a banned substance in the sample. Now, with the biological passport, we can say something about intent to cheat," Melia says.
"The idea is that this is the future [of anti-doping] The U.K. has embraced this approach and will require all athletes to sign on if they want to be part of the 2012 Olympic Games."