Blood & Skills

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I continue to hear pundits & those involved in ‘skill based’ sports defend themselves against EPO use & blood manipulation as if it wouldn’t benefit them. I beg to differ. The following should at least show that there’s little chance of getting caught in other sports & there’s huge benefits to most sports people in the use of banned substances like EPO (Erythropoietin). Next time you hear that they don’t test because “they don’t have a problem”, maybe consider that they don’t test for another very obvious reason, opening the doors to what’s actually going on.

Fitness V Skills

In ideal circumstances, where there is a level playing field, any elite athlete or sportsperson would have to dedicate a large amount of time to developing their aerobic fitness. This could give them a competitive advantage in their sport, allowing them to outperform their rivals, keep playing at the same level throughout a game & potentially recover better from injuries. More time devoted to fitness training, then less time devoted to skills training obviously results in a less skilled player than one who has devoted all that time to skills.

Imagine if there was a shortcut which sports competitors could use that would reduce the huge amount of time required to gain the very high levels of aerobic fitness required in most sports these days, allowing them to spend most of that time on improving their skills. Do you think they would take that shortcut, especially if there was virtually no testing for it, as the sport’s hierarchy had decided that nobody needed it as EPO & blood boosting are not a problem in their sport?

With almost zero chance of getting caught for its use, a pharmaceutical product sourced in a jiffy-bag relatively cheaply from China (I googled it, it’s quite shocking how easy it is to acquire), it’s almost a no-brainer for any manager under pressure from sponsors & sponsor company directors to make a dodgy decision. You have to ask, why wouldn’t they? The vast sums of money available if players move up to the next level are a huge motivator, they appear to be willing to do it in cycling to secure a deal on the UCI minimum wage, if millions were on offer, morality doesn’t get a look-in.

Minimal Testing

There’s been a myth generated within these ‘skill based’ sports that EPO & other drug use is not widespread, they devote much less funding towards testing for it, as “they don’t have a problem”. We know that doping has existed for some time in football, in 2013 the German government released a report which revealed that the team who won the 1954 World Cup had been injected with the amphetamine Pervatin, which had been developed by the Nazi’s to make their troops fight longer & harder.

Take football & tennis as examples, there’s an estimated over 65,000 professional footballers in the world & all are eligible for testing. In tennis the ATP Tour have 1,814 players & the ATP Tour 1,106, so 2,920 in total. In road cycling, there’s around 1200 WorldTour & ProContinental riders + around 2300 competing in Continental Tour events, circa 3500 professional riders.

Summary: Football 65,000 professionals, Tennis 2,920 professionals, Road Cycling 3500 professionals.

If we take 2015 as an example, the WADA report reveals the following:

Football

  • Total in-competition urine tests: 24,654 (37.9% chance of being tested)
  • Total out-of-competition urine tests: 5,618 (8.6% chance of being tested)
  • Total in-competition blood tests: 697 (1.1% chance of being tested)
  • Total out-of-competition blood tests: 617 (0.9% chance of being tested)

Tennis

  • Total in-competition urine tests: 2,523 (86.4% chance of being tested)
  • Total out-of-competition urine tests: 929 (31.8% chance of being tested)
  • Total in-competition blood tests: 166 (5.6% chance of being tested)
  • Total out-of-competition blood tests: 829 (28.4% chance of being tested)

Road Cycling

  • Total in-competition urine tests: 6,460 (184.6% chance of being tested, i.e. more than once)
  • Total out-of-competition urine tests: 4,123 (117.8% chance of being tested, i.e. more than once)
  • Total in-competition blood tests: 407 (11.6% chance of being tested)
  • Total out-of-competition blood tests: 569 (16.2% chance of being tested)

I’ve made some assumptions in the testing probability, that the vast majority of testing is on the professional athletes in each sport & that tests are carried out across the entire available players/riders (we know there will be target testing, so I’m just keeping it simple). In cycling there are also figures for track, bmx, mountain biking, cross etc, but these are not included in these figures, we’re looking solely at the most tested area of cycling, which is road cycling.

The Gist Of It

When I googled EPO from China, sources appeared on the first page of results, selling it for the use of athletes, with full instructions. If you’re keen on using it, you’ll have already done this, so I’m not exactly revealing anything here for those who can use google & are idiots willing to inject stuff with no traceability that’s sent in a jiffy bag. It seems reasonable to assume that any sports team could ‘prepare’ their team members for about £500 each, use their existing doctors to safely administer it & result in a team with new-found superskills looking like it had “run rings around” their rivals (remind anybody of anything?). Whenever I hear that phrase in sports reports, I do always wonder, because as we know, in sports like football there are virtually no tests for EPO, especially at domestic level.

As this 2008 paper reveals, EPO also provides some considerable injury recovery properties. So I ask again, why wouldn’t highly paid footballers be taking this, it’s cheap, easily accessable & there’s only a 1% chance of being tested, which would have to be in the short ‘glow time’, while a cyclist has over 16% chance of being tested. I’m sure proper testing would reveal some very disturbing truths.

The Drugs Don’t Work

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I’ve been through some of these issues before, the phenomenon of the sudden disappearance of the majority of those riders who come from high altitude environments during the major EPO years. It’s quite possible we still have a hangover from this in the current bio-passport policed environment, where riders can no longer go ‘full gass’ on the substances that make the most difference to aerobic performance & recovery. Could this be why some riders are currently able to produce incredible performances without drugs, could we be experiencing the aerobic talent that was missing all those years starting to drift back into the peloton?

Lost Years

I firmly believe that during the major EPO years we never saw the most talented cyclists reach the top of the sport. I suspect that some of that era’s finest riders never even made the pro ranks, they were left unable to proceed in the sport, outgunned by dopers & unwilling to participate in a gunfight while carrying a knife.

To illustrate this, we hear about the ‘good responders’. These individuals reputedly had low natural hematocrit (HCT) levels. The UCI limit, which was set at 50% (but 51% was the accepted target) ruled out many riders from the pro peloton. Prior to a valid test for EPO, riders were able to boost their levels from what is considered a ‘normal’ european sea level dweller value by over 10% in some cases. The worldwide HCT average value is considered for sedentary individuals is said to be around 42% to 54%, an athlete may be expected to be a bit lower due to training stress. This obviously creates an automatic disadvantage to athletes who live at altitude, or who spend time at altitude.

A study in Italian helicopter pilots who spend plenty of time high-in-the-air at altitude showed that their average HCT was 55%. This illustrates the huge variation that environmental factors have on HCT, we hardly saw a high altitude Colombian in a major race for several years. As I’ve said before, I don’t suppose that Colombians are less prone to doping than any rider from any other country, but their ability to improve ability from a very high natural HCT level was almost impossible, compared to the low-land dwelling individuals. Some Colombians would have been over the 51% level naturally, they had no hope of competing in those times. Charly Wegelius explains in his book about a constant worry of keeping his HCT level below the level it would trigger a break from racing ‘on health grounds’, as even though a European, his whole family had higher than the population normal HCT %’s.

This leads me to imagine that riders similar to those who would previously have been the top performers in cycling may now have returned. We may be unfairly tarring them with the same brush as riders from the past, but similar athletes may not have been capable of taking a place in the top flight of cycling when no EPO tests were available. They could be a few percent below the previous performances, but had they been in the peloton before, they would have been in the 2nd or 3rd groups on the climbs, not leading them. Without EPO, I find it hard to imagine any substance that could create these kinds of performances from ordinary riders, this is the crucial piece that is missing from doping accusers. What exactly is it they are taking that is making their performances better that anybody else, I’ve yet to hear a valid argument for this.

Data Issues

Currently, we have at least one Colombian rider undergoing tests due to questions about their bio-passports. One of these is Sergio Henao of Team Sky. As far as I’m aware, the majority of the data collected for the bio-passport project was predominantly carried out specifically in the sport of cycling, around the time that a test for EPO had just been rolled out & an era we know was tainted. I’d suggest that at this time, some of the test sample consisted of ‘good responders’. This leads us to the big question, perhaps we have a data issue right now, where the high altitude riders are suffering further issues with the bio-passport due to the original sample of data that was taken from the riders at the time.

The Gist Of It

I’m no expert on physiology or blood, I’d be very interested to hear from anybody who is, who can maybe shed some light on whether or not the above is a correct hypothesis. That the previous sample population that was tested isn’t relevant to the current sample population. The current riders are subject to the data gathered from a potentially abnormal group of riders who fitted a specific low HCT requirement during the major EPO years & had just abandoned major EPO use due to a test being developed. That there may be clean riders suffering from the hangover from an era that cycling was blown apart & the culture of widespread EPO use was reduced massively over a short period of time due to better testing & the bio-passport. I had forgotten all about this post, but in light of recent rumours of questions being raised informally regarding another Colombian rider, this issue may rear its head yet again, obviously in the week before the Tour, as usual.

Bio Hazard

biohazardTodays big doping news is that the UCI has opened disciplinary proceedings against Jonathan Tiernan-Locke. I’ve written some positive things about him in the past, hopeful things, wishing that his performances in 2012 were plausible, that he hadn’t betrayed Brian Smith, that he may be clean. As proceedings have progressed from a period where Tiernan-Locke could explain the changes in his blood values, onto the disciplinary phase, the probability of him being clean diminishes. The proceedings simply getting to this point means the bio-passport irregularities can’t be explained away with a simple reason, where any probable explanation can carry an element of doubt, even if he’s cleared. We’re heading into the grey area.

The Bio Passport

If you’re not aware of exactly what this is, here’s a brief description in lay mans terms, as I’m no blood expert myself I had to look into it to find out what some of the terms mean. Basically blood is taken at various periods throughout the year, the purpose of this is to determine a baseline of biological markers for each rider. This is then cross checked against pre-determined permissible levels (which I believe are quite generous, so to fail these is pretty disastrous). The markers look at blood cells, specifically at the age & percentage of them in the test sample. So in very simple terms, you biological markers should stay relatively the same, as shown by decades of medical research on the general public. A change in these can show you’ve been a very naughty boy, for example, if your sample shows older blood cells suddenly increase in percentage, then you may have transfused a bag of blood you’ve kept in the mother fridge for the last month “It’s pigs blood for my black pudding mum”. Or if you have a large concentration of very new blood cells, you may have injected the substance that stimulates red blood cell growth, EPO.

So the blood passport is an indicator of manipulation, but several things can change the percentages of the measured biological markers, such as dehydration, illness etc. For example, riders don’t have a bio passport blood samples taken from them directly after a race, to allow their bodies to regain semi-normal levels, otherwise any rider would have vast differences after a stage. We know that to try & balance levels, riders have been known to micro-dose EPO along with taking a transfusion, to attempt to balance their marker levels, even using their own testing machines, so it all gets a bit silly sometimes. If somebody wanted to maintain a boosted level all the time & set their baseline at this, it would be incredibly hard to maintain that for several years while in the testing pool, as your body would constantly be trying to return to its natural level, so it’s hard to imagine this is possible, but you never know.

Just Cycling?

You may ask why this just affects cycling, why not other sports. The answer to that is that most of them don’t do it yet. Yet again, cycling has implemented additional testing to its competitors in order to stamp out doping, or to be seen to be stamping out doping as may have been the case with the old UCI regime. WADA will be attempting to roll it out to other sports very soon, cross-country skiing is apparently already taking samples & tennis started taking samples this year, notably at Wimbledon a large amount of seeded players decided they were suddenly injured after bio blood tests were announced, while others underperformed dramatically. Introducing bio passports across other sports could have a huge effect of the top players & competitors, as testing has generally been lower than in cycling, plus in many of these sports the earning power is much greater & adds to the incentive to cheat. A commonly held belief in sport is that the higher the reward, the greater the risk that is taken & this includes the added chance of doping to exist in these sports. If it’s in cycling, it’s in just about every sport.

I’m all for tennis & football to introduce the bio passport, but whether they will or not is another matter. Cycling is predominantly an aerobic sport, so blood manipulation had a huge effect on results, it made a mockery of them for about 15 years in pro cycling. Skill based sports also benefit hugely from EPO use, blood transfusions & other types of manipulation.

Lets take an example of two hypothetical twins who both play football. As modern footballers now require a high level of fitness, they require a pile of endurance training to achieve this. Lets suggest that one of our twins decides not to do this, he takes a shortcut & inject his fitness with an EPO programme, the other twin trains aerobically for 2 to 3 hours per day, on top of his skills training. The short-cut twin is able to spend that training time on skills, set pieces etc & becomes a much more skillful player as a result. The clean twin is fatigued from the endurance training & has less time to train his skills. Which player results in being the best one, if there is no sufficient testing, bearing in mind they have both achived the same fitness level but one has 2 to 3 hours per day more skills training?

Virtually any sports person, who competes in a sport that requires any underlying fitness level can benefit fraudulently from doping, the bio passport needs implemented across the board for us to have any belief that what we see is clean, or at the very least, has minimal manipulation.

The Gist Of It

JTL is now tarnished whether or not he’s clean, we don’t really know yet, but the forthcoming ‘verdict’ will be debated, I expect there will be no dominant opinion on this, a bio-passport verdict is a polarizing subject. The bio-passport is a good thing in sporting terms, the allowances are very large, so if something is detected we can assume that there is a very valid reason for it being brought to a disciplinary proceeding.

The bio-passport can stop riders doping as much as they used to, perhaps a fraction of what they may have done before. In cycling, we have had the 50% haematocrit ceiling in the past, which other sports didn’t have, so when it’s rolled out across other sports we’ll see a much more dramatic change in the top performers, much greater than a previous multi grand-tour winner not quite firing on all cylinders as we’ve seen. If anybody watching from the experienced seat of a cycling fan, sees young footballers having heart attacks on the pitch, it reminds us of early 90’s reports of Belgian cyclists dying in their sleep, with their hearts finding it impossible to pump their EPO boosted treacle-like blood around their bodies.

The bio passport needs introduced in all sports, not just for sporting ethics reasons, but for public health reasons, we need to make sure our athletes, players & competitors in any sport don’t have to risk their health to be on the same playing field as everybody else. Would you want your son or daughter competing in a sport where they refused to implement a biological passport system?

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Better Living Through Chemistry

For some reason, after a series of revelations from the USADA investigation into Lance Armstrong, the admission of Ryder Hesjedal has had a significant effect on people’s attitudes to ‘reformed dopers’. Michael Rasmussen’s recent excerpts from his book, mention how he ‘taught’ Hesjedal to dope while they were both mountain bikers, this was claimed to be in 2003. The big question we all ask is, why stop there, as Hesjedal claims, why not carry on as the EPO testing was ineffective at the time?

Ill Gotten Gains

Myself, among others, are becoming increasingly annoyed by the so-called clean riders, who are now performing exceptionally well in the ‘new clean cycling’ we see now. But as a BBC article showed last week, the effects of performance enhancing drugs like steroids & testosterone can have an effect for up to ten years. Is it any coincidence that the riders who are performing now, have a rich history of doping, but if caught, they all seem to claim they stopped in 2006 (conveniently just outside the time limit they could be charged with a doping offence on the 7 years statute of limitations rules) or “tried it just the once”. These riders are now making good livings & possibly beating riders through previous chemistry, a fact they may be completely unaware of, better living through chemistry.

It is easy to assume, that the gains accrued due to years of performance enhancing drug use, as proven in research, now allow the former users to have an advantage over riders who have never partaken in illegal methods. It makes the case for lifetime bans being considered under WADA rules for athletes caught using substances that can have a significant effect on performance outside the normal timeframes that are considered.

We can also assume that dubious coaches may take advantage of the new findings. Talented juniors could be identified, taken out of competition for 3 or 4 years, filled with performance enhancing drugs with no control, then launched into the U23 race scene, while riding clean they would be benefitting from the effects that the PED’s gave them over the extended period of doping & training under the guidance of the dubious doctor. We could be moving into a new age of doping, the age of historical doping.

Sanctions

There have been calls for the WADA list of banned substances to be upgraded & split into types. This would make sense for this ‘historical doping’ possibility. Any substance which research has proven to give gains beyond the time the substance is used, should carry a ban which extends to the maximum timeframe over which the effects may act, if it changes muscle structure, that could mean life. Alongside that, the gains from blood vector doping products like EPO should also carry a much longer sentence.

Currently, if you’re a bit daft & take an incorrect cold remedy that contains a banned substance, you get the same ban as you would do had you sourced EPO, then injected it into your arms. This isn’t a fair system.

WADA can’t police everything, athletes are going to dope no matter what, if they think they can get away with it. But the sanctions are currently not enough, having 2 years which is often reduced to one year or less is really not dealing with the issue. The gains for winning big events are so huge, that the risks are often seen as worth taking, with the chances of getting caught being so minimal. The list of banned substances needs to be categorised, with things we know are accidents being given much smaller sentences, while things like EPO being given career ending 4 or 5 year sentences (or anything that involves a needle), while research proven substances like testosterone or steroids, that show a long term benefit of up to 10 years being given that kind of ban.

The Jist Of It

If we don’t do something soon to change the entire strategy on doping in sport,  we’re setting up some of our talented younger generation for long-term manipulation from the dubious doctors we know already operate within our sport. These people will find a way to make money, if their old methods can now be detected, they may now resort to the newly researched ‘historical doping’. Research isn’t just for the catchers, it also helps the evaders, and they are looking for any opportunity to profit from the system.

So far the doctors shown themselves to be several steps ahead. High level dopers seem to be caught by testimony, not testing, the consequences are not high enough, we need to add career ending bans to riders who attempt to dope with career changing drugs.

As a consequence of the new research, I’ll no longer be pleased if proven former dopers like Hesjedal or a great number of his Garmin team-mates win races. Surely, for the good of the sport, these guys should retire & make way for riders who didn’t partake, but then again, how do we know who didn’t get involved, whatever their age?

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Back to the Future

The sport has yet again been brought into disrepute, this time by a repeat offender, how can we get back to a place where we can believe in our top riders, where what we see are genuine performances. It’s going to be a rocky & troubled road.

The current riders

The only chance we have of retaining any credibility in the sport, as the riders all say, the new generation of riders are in fact clean. But we cant say this is going to be the case, there’s always going to be bad apples, riders who try to do a bit of DIY doping like well-known idiot Riccardo Ricco, who kept his own blood next to the strawberry yoghurts & an old piece of stilton. He probably wouldn’t drink his chocolate milk after the sell by date, but proceeded to re-infuse a load of dead blood cells into his body, stupidity doesn’t even cover this, how he’s managed to survive to this point in his life is anybody’s guess. Ricco is an extreme example, but surely there will be plenty of others willing to take big risks if the majority of the peloton are following most of the rules, could that make a small percentage take extraordinary risks to become stars? Dope controls and testing procedures therefore need to be increased, even if the overall level of doping is reduced, otherwise you’re opening the floodgates for things to get very bad again, very quickly. The UCI & WADA really need to stay on top of this, but if they don’t start working together, it’s not going to happen, the UCI needs to change its structure.

We also have a number of riders proclaiming that it’s not anything to do with their era, this isn’t winning many fans over. Even Bradley Wiggins, who should know better, claimed that he’s never ridden against Armstrong in one interview, a glance over the 2009 top 4 Tour riders would surely raise some eyebrows to that claim. Andy Schleck is also saying it’s not his generation and things have changed, meanwhile his brother Frank is serving a doping ban from the 2012 Tour & previously was found to have paid Dr Fuentes several thousand euro’s for interval training, Dr Fuentes is famous for being a gynecologist & a blood specialist, not a master of interval sessions. The Schlecks Directeur Sportif in 2012 was Armstrong’s manager during all his annulled Tour victories, the DS who brought the Schlecks to prominence was Bjarne Riis, known as Mr 60% who went crazy on EPO to destroy Miguel Indurain. So somehow we don’t believe the Schlecks. Then we have the favourites for the 2013 Tour, Wiggins, Froome (he seems quite smart in all this, he’s keeping his mouth shut), Van Den Broek, Contador, Van Garderen, Evans etc. We all know about Contador and steak-gate, but ex US Postal rider Van Den Broek has admitted he used a doctor who is now under investigation for blood doping, he claimed he needed to see him as he needed information of what was & wasn’t on the WADA prohibited list, he could have just used this link? So a good many of the potential top 10 riders have links to dubious pasts, dubious doctors (the Sky Dr Lienders debacle) & dubious statements, if there is a new generation coming through, it’s intertwined with the old generation, it’s those people who still run the sport. Everybody likes Jens Voigt, but in his vast career he claims he’s never seen or heard anything, having ridden on CSC & Leopard Trek, even if he’s never touched the ‘hot sauce’, he’s complicit to the system by claiming nobody’s said anything to him. That’s the remaining problem, nobody’s seen anything until they themselves are implicated, nobody wants to ruin their career prospects by dishing too much dirt, if they keep their heads down then perhaps nobody will mention them.

The future

Somehow there needs to be an end to blood vector doping from doping products like EPO, these are the things that do actually turn an ordinary pro rider into a Tour winner, along with blood transfusions. Once that happens we can return to the time before 1990, since then riders who were naturally talented were perhaps forced to be absent from even pursuing pro careers, we maybe never saw the best talents on the last 20 years, they could have been hidden in the amateur ranks, unable to get the interest of the big teams. Those teams were busy recruiting ‘good responders’, riders with a naturally low hematocrit levels (HCT, the percentage of oxygen carrying red blood cells in the blood), so they could boost them massively. Consider that Armstrong was reputedly a rider with a historic HCT value of 38%, the rules allowed him to boost that to 50% without anybody asking any questions, while a more physiologically talented rider with a 48% HCT could only boost an extra 2%, that era changed the winners to losers and the losers to winners, just with the use of one drug. Spare a thought for the Colombians and other high altitude dwelling riders, they virtually disappeared over this time period, unable to boost at all with EPO as they had naturally high HCT values over 50%. I’m basing a cleaner peloton on seeing these riders returning to the top ranks of pro teams, we have a number of Colombians now racing at Pro-Tour level, this is a good sign.

If you want to read more on HCT, then there’s a very good interview with Michael Ashenden on this link.

What happens next

Without adequate testing for micro-dosing EPO, or a viable test for blood transfusions, riders will always find ways to cheat the UCI’s bio passport, whether or not they’re given any assistance. So things need to change in cycling, the responsibility lies with teams, sponsors, riders & fans. We can’t expect superhuman performances, we can’t expect 80kg riders to climb with the best Colombians, we can expect to see disastrous bad days in grand tours and riders blowing spectacularly. This is what we saw in the 80’s, that was as real as we can expect, the drugs they used didn’t make anything like the same differences to riders. The testing must increase, blood transfusions eliminated and the bio passport to become more extensive, or our sport will forever be a testing ground for the latest medical product, it can’t go on like this, we can’t have another Armstrong.