Changes are coming, and they won’t be good for athletes fixed on cheating their way to the top of the medal podium.
At its November congress in Johannesburg, South Africa, the World Anti-Doping Agency will update its call for athletes to carry steroid passports, similar to the biological passports already used in sports such as cycling, athletics and cross-country skiing.
The bio passports record blood readings that can be used to determine if an athlete is doping; the steroid passport would record an athlete’s testosterone levels. WADA wants steroid passports implemented in as many sports as possible by the end of December.
On top of that, WADA is set to introduce harsher penalties for first-time cheats effective January of 2015. In Canada, for example, an athlete caught using an illegal substance for the first time could receive a two-year ban. A second offence would result in a life-time suspension. Under WADA’s new rules, it’s four years for a first offence, life for a second.
Paul Melia, the chief executive officer of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sports, will be at the WADA congress and approves of the tougher sanctions.
“It sends a strong message. As the Lance Armstrong situation showed [in cycling], a very sophisticated doping program can take place and go undetected,” Melia said. “Right now, athletes are thinking, ‘Even if I do get caught it’s only two years. I’ll do it.’ If an athlete thinks the possibility of being caught is low then the need for a severe penalty goes up.”
WADA is determined to upgrade its attack on performance-enhancing drugs through a standardized approach, with all sports in all countries educating, testing and punishing in the same fashion. Melia said the CCES “will adopt and implement the 2015 world code.”
So far, the CCES has been conducting as much pre-2014 Winter Olympics testing as it can. One issue is few sports have officially identified which of their athletes will be competing in Sochi, Russia. Another issue is CCES’s limited finances. Getting the most from the number of blood tests it conducts is part of Melia’s planning.
“Typically, we begin our pre-Games testing and education six months out. But there a lot of teams that have not been named yet, so we do have a long list of people to get to,” Melia said. “Some will be tested a second time, some only once. Some are on bio passports.
“Given our resources, we’re trying to test athletes at the right time when doping is at its likeliest leading up to a Games.”
The inglorious details of seven-time Tour de France winner Armstrong’s drug usage aren’t the only concern for WADA. The Australian Sport Anti-Doping Authority brought about legislative changes to strengthen its intelligence gathering and investigative capabilities, which would force individuals to testify if called upon. The changes were made after the Australian Crime Commission determined there was a problem throughout the country’s sports scene, both with performance-related drugs (hormones and supplements) and illicit drugs.
Christiane Ayotte, director of the WADA-certified drug-testing lab in Montreal, said some drugs have made their way into the sports scene and been readily detected. (A Canadian bobsledder was suspended earlier this year for using a prohibited anabolic agent known as SARM S-22.)
But keeping pace with the drugs and how they’re used is where the challenges lie.
“Our concern is the issue of small doses. If blood doping is done with smaller doses it’s quite difficult to detect,” said Ayotte, adding some of the new drugs in circulation are “for research study and not for human consumption.
“The bio passport is a new tool in place,” the doctor said. “But it takes time to implement.”
Melia hopes that by whatever means the message will get through and athletes will consider the risks, both personal and medical, before reaching for a performance–enabling drug.