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WADA drug testing better, but still falls short

By Chris Lewis - posted Wednesday, 24 June 2015


According to Victor Conte (17 June 2015), who now offers ideas about how to diminish banned dug use in sport after serving time in prison in 2005 for distributing steroids to top athletes, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) 'cares more about their sponsorship dollars than they do about athletes using PEDs' (performance enhancing drugs).

Dick Pound, a former WADA chairman, also declared in 2013 that 'nobody wants to catch anybody. There's no incentive. Countries are embarrassed if their nationals are caught. And sports are embarrassed if someone from their sport is caught'.

Such pessimistic sentiment towards sports drug testing may be fuelled by data which reveals fewer tests by some important sporting organisations and sports. For example, the number of total tests by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) declined from 5,817 in 2012 to 4,736 with athletics falling from 27,836 to 24,942.

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But sports drug testing has indeed improved, at least for elite sportspeople subject to stringent testing under the WADA code, as evident by superstars of sport being caught in recent years. This includes testosterone use by a world champion sprinter (Tyson Gay), and the Olympic champion freestyle swimmer (Park Tae-hwan).

This article discusses drug testing for synthetic testosterone, given that athletes with a testosterone/epitestosterone (T/E) ratio > 4 represented 59.6% (1,859 of 3118 tests) of Adverse Analytical Findings and Atypical Findings for anabolic agents during 2013 according to WADA data from the Antiâ€Doping Administration and Management System (ADAMS).

But with such a small proportion of athletes banned for drug use in 2013, including just a 1.2% rate for athletics, some commentators call for greater Gas Chromatograph/Carbon/Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometer (IRMS) tests, also known as the Carbon Isotope Ratio method, to confirm the presence of synthetic testosterone.

With athletics known to have a higher banned drug use rate, with WADA initiated research estimating that 29 per cent of the athletes at the 2011 world championships had doped during the previous year, some argue that greater use of IRMS testing could extend the detection period for fast-acting testosterone gels and creams from a few hours to several days.

Such sentiment is inspired by the reality that IRMS testing caught out Justin Gatlin in 2006 after he passed the T/E ratio, and would have complicated the ability of Lance Armstrong to pass 275 drugs tests given his admitted use of testosterone during the Tour De France.

And along with some athletes having greater opportunity to exploit the T/E ratio because they have two copies of a particular version of a gene called UGT2B17, David Epstein(an American expert on genetics) recommended during August 2013 that IRMS testing be used on everyone, although acknowledging that the 'test is costly and laborious'.

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The importance of IRMS testing is evident in a report to the WADA Executive Committee on 16 April 2013 concerning the 'Lack of Effectiveness of Testing Programs' which included recommendations that IRMS testing for artificial testosterone 'be increased forthwith for samples provided by male athletes', and that 'rules should be established to permit testing during the periods when detection is possible' to help detect the increasing trend of micro dosages.

As a result of such sentiment, the number of IRMS tests did increase in 2013 from 2012 despite falling total test numbers: from 5,724 in 2012 (2,944 OCT) to 6,085 (OCT 2,975) in WADA laboratories, and from 591 (410 OCT) to 941 (448 OCT) for athletics.

This does not imply that there is no room for improvement.

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About the Author

Chris Lewis has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

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