Keeping sport clean and doping free...

Cycling fans were devastated when Lance Armstrong was found guilty of systematic doping. But how can we prevent this in future?
08 July 2014

Interview with 

David Howman, Director General of the World Anti Doping Agency


Despite it's long history, probably one of the darkest moments in the Tour's history is Lance Armstrongthe seven years, between 1999 and 2005 for which the history books no longer list a winner. Lance Armstrong was stripped of his titles in 2012 after being found guilty of systematic doping by the International Cycling Union.

To find out how organisations are now working to keep cycling and other sports clean through better drugs testing Kate Lamble caught up with the Director General of the World Anti Doping Agency David Howman.

Kate - The most famous example, in recent times in cycling at least of someone who's been found guilty of doping, it was Lance Armstrong and he admitted last year to using the banned substance EPO and also to so-called blood doping. What do things like EPO and blood doping do? What does that actually mean?

David - Well, I wish he had admitted it a little bit earlier than what occurred, but that's by the by. What the EPO does is provide more oxygen to the blood and therefore, enhance the way in which you can increase your exertion so to speak and it's the same sort of thing with blood doping.

Kate - So, blood doping, as far as I understand it is when you remove your own blood before a race so you've got a higher red blood level count and then you inject it back in at a later time.

David - That's one form of blood doping, yes and it's very hard to detect because you're using your own blood to put back into your body. The examples of using somebody else's blood or some animal's blood is a little easier to detect. That's occurred in the past as well.

Kate - Now, Armstrong's defence for a long time was that he was tested as part of racing, more than 200 times and was never caught. Why would things like EPO and blood doping not have appeared on this tests?

David - I could only guess and there maybe a number of reasons. One is that he had very clever doctors or scientists that were able to manipulate his system at the time or just before the time that he was tested. That's conjecture because it's not been proved, but we know for example that it is not too difficult if you're giving it advance notice of a blood or a urine test that you can so manipulate your urine or blood. We also know and Lance Armstrong was not the only one - Marion Jones for example is another one who never tested positive through her career, but cheated throughout. What we are trying to do is ensure that we do not rely solely on collection of blood and urine, and therefore, subsequent analysis of those samples, but also look at other ways of collecting evidence about how people are cheating.

Kate - Two years ago when Armstrong's titles were withdrawn, I remember Pat McQuaid who, at that time was the president of the International Cycling Union, he said that the cheats were better than the scientists. Is that what anti-doping is about, just this long term race between people who want to cheat in any sport and scientists?

David - I think I would liken it to the race in any part of our society where people want to cheat. And you can look at the same sort of issue with for example, plagiarism in journalism. It's never going to go away because people want to take shortcuts.

We think there is a narrowing of the gap between those who are cheating and those who are trying to catch the cheats. And that has narrowed considerably since even Pat McQuaid uttered those words. But you'll always going to get people who are prepared to spend a lot of money. If you remember the amount of money that we've got at our disposal, we have about $28 million a year, that buys about a half a football player.

Kate - So EPO, I remember it being talked about in cycling, a long time before a test was ever developed for it. How do you develop tests for drugs that you're not 100% whether athletes are using?

David - Well, that's a scientific issue and we spend a lot of money on research and that research takes a while because at the end of the day, when you are putting together a detection method, you have to be pretty close to 100% sure it's not going to produce false positive cases.

The EPO test was looked at way back in the 1990s and it took 5 or 6 years before scientists could agree as to what sort of approach could be used. If you remember in the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, there was a urine/blood approach suggested and it took quite some time before there was a settled test for detection of EPO. That occurred with urine in 2001. So, these things take time, what we found of more recent times though is that, taking EPO as an example, we're now into about the third or fourth generation of EPO style products. Remember, these are products made by the pharmaceutical industries for good and proper health reasons. So, there are products that the pharmaceutical companies are putting together on a regular basis and we need to keep up with what is being made available because the cheating athlete uses them for the wrong reasons.

Kate - I mean, it's not just blood and urine tests for specific drugs that athletes have nowadays, but also these biological passports. What does that mean? Why were they introduced for the first time?

David - Well, the biological passport was actually introduced and our suggestion by UCI in 2007, after a pretty unfortunate tour that year because it was a way of not only detecting whether athletes were using banned substances, but also a way for athletes to be able to put their hand up and say, "Look at my profile. It's normal." What it does is it collects results from a number of samples. You need 4 or 5 blood samples over a period of time so that you can look at the profile of any athlete, and you can see the spikes, the ups and downs in the profile. If they're not explicable by normal medical or health reasons then you have to look further and say, is this doping or is this a medical problem that the athlete has? And you conduct a medical inquiry into it.

Kate - Some athletes do have naturally higher testosterone levels and things like that. How do you judge what's normal?

David - Well, testosterone is another issue and what we've got now for testosterone is the ability through the steroid module to assess a testosterone level in an athlete. Again, it comes down to what is normal for that athlete. So, you're quite right to say it's very difficult to say what is normal across a whole human population around the world. What we have had in the past is a ratio of 4 to 1 between epitestosterone and testosterone which has proven to be two conservative because you might have a normal testosterone level of 1.5 and you can therefore cheat up to 4.

So, what they do now is they look at their profile, gathered from urine testing and in the same way as I've just described the blood over 4 or 5 samples, look at what the normal TE ratio is. And if the athlete sits into that ratio normally then there will be no further inquiry. If he or she doesn't and there's a peak or a trough then we have an implement called a carbon isotope ratio approach and it automatically goes into that, tells you whether it's synthetic testosterone or not.

Kate - Biological passports have been introduced in cycling for a while and they're becoming more popular in other sports. So, tennis took them on last year in 2013 and they're used up in the World Cup in Brazil for the first time this year. Why are some sports quicker to take on anti-doping measures than others?

David - Well, I think because they're not mandated to. If somebody is told to, they will do it. If it's discretionary, people will do it when they feel that it fits their sport or suits their athletes and it's helpful for them. I think what we've found is that the take on the passport has taken a while. Therefore, people have been reluctant to use it unless they are sports where they've had let's call it problems or difficulties historically where they feel that the passport will be very useful. What we've seen now, particularly with football picking it up is that sport in general realises that this is a better way to go than just relying on urine collection alone.


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