A new era in drug testing will make it much harder to cheatby Tim Harris / July 23, 2009 / Leave a comment
Few sporting records are likely to be broken at this summer’s athletics World Championships in Berlin. But the event could be the most significant in the history of drug detection in sport.
The competition, which starts on 15th August, is the Olympics’ evil twin—or perhaps more accurately its wicked stepsister—a biennial potboiler, intended to keep athletics fans’ eyes square during odd-numbered summers. The significance of this year’s event is that it will be the first big tournament to trial the new “biological passport,” developed at great cost by the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada).
Founded ten years ago, Montreal-based Wada’s mission is to decide what drugs should be illegal in sport and to fight their use. Its new passport system will make the biggest change to the way cheats are identified since the first patchy out-of-competition tests began in the wake of Ben Johnson’s bust at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Since the late 1960s, when the first crude tests for stimulants were implemented, individual spot tests have sought to identify specific drugs or doping techniques and compare them to normal levels in the general population. The problems with this approach are obvious. As well as the practical difficulties of collecting and testing samples, it requires the authorities to guess what drugs might be present and to have a test that will stand up in court. A deeper flaw is the assumption that a normal level exists. This has been successfully challenged by athletes like Belgian triathlete Rutger Beke, who in 2005 proved that his body naturally produced high levels of the blood-booster erythropoietin (EPO). And a British Journal of Sports Medicine article earlier this year described a test for testosterone as “not fit for purpose” because it failed to take ethnic variations into account.
Another problem with retrospective spot tests is that the time taken to implement them often means that dopers still get their moment of glory, while honest athletes don’t. In the 2004 Athens Olympics, for example, Russian shotput contestant Irina Korzhanenko (right) got her hour in the sun before her positive steroid result came through. The hope is that under Wada’s new passport system, continuous monitoring and random in and out-of-competition tests will either discourage drug cheats or catch them beforehand.
The term “passport” is a reassuringly familiar misnomer for the series of tests managed by a web-based…