Wednesday, April 29, 2009

IOC Retest Catches 3 Track and Field Athletes - but did they catch them all?

The buzz today is that three track and field athletes have been identified as having tested positive for the blood boosting drug CERA as a result of the IOC's retest of samples submitted by athletes in Beijing. On the one hand this is good news. WADA was so excited that it gave the following statement,  "WADA commends the IOC, once again, for its approach." "Retesting of samples as science advances is a powerful weapon in the fight against doping in sport, as shown in a number of cases at the 2008 Tour de France."    "We suggest that athletes who may be tempted to cheat keep this reality in mind," said WADA president John Fahey. "We believe that retrospective testing serves as a strong deterrent."

And I strongly agree. Any time we can make inroads into the doping culture and catch drug cheats, its always a good thing. But given the results of the recent past, I've not had a lot of confidence in our drug testing policy, or the results we have gotten - especially given the lack of transparency regarding drug testing in the sport. So I started reading through the various articles and data to find out not only who tested positive, but just how that ranked among other sports and against the number of tests administered.

What did I discover? Well I found out that the three athletes were 1500 meter gold medalist Rashid Ramzi of Bahrain, Greek race walker Athanasia Tsoumeleka and Croatian 800-meter runner Vanja Perisic . Further reading lead me to the numbers: The IOC said it conducted retests of 948 samples for CERA (847) and insulin (101) from the 4,770 drug tests carried out before and during the August 8-24 Games in Beijing.

And that's when I started to go "Hmmm". Because that's only about 20% of the available samples. So my question was, as it has been for some time, how did they decide which samples to test? So I continued searching articles and came across the following information from the Associated Press: The testing began in January and focused mainly on endurance events in cycling, rowing, swimming and track and field.

Now THAT is a narrow grouping, and one that clearly misses the mark. Because anyone that has followed track and field since 2002 has read something about the BALCO investigation. And while THG (the undetectable designer drug used by all the athletes) was common in all the busts of those athletes involved with BALCO, so was EPO and Insulin! All of these athletes were using "cocktails" of drugs that included both these items. Sprinters Dwain Chambers, Tim Montgomery, Kelli White, and Marion Jones, and throwers John McEwen, Kevin Toth and C.J. Hunter. They all used these drugs in tandem. And outside of the "BALCO probe" we've had busts of sprinters such as Alvin Harrison and Antonio Pettigrew who have also used EPO and were banned from the sport as a result.

So knowing that sprinters and throwers also use EPO the immediate question that went through my mind was: why did the retest only target "endurance events"? Because looking at the small percentage of samples retested combined with the limiting factor of "endurance events" I feel like I'm watching a murder investigation where a local DA arrests SOMEBODY to calm the public down and convince them that they are getting the job done! When in reality the real killer is most likely still out there preparing for yet another murder. Or in this case we catch a handful while the likelihood that there are many more out there getting away with using CERA or Insulin is extremely high given that we know we've missed a large population of athletes that would use and gain benefit from these drugs!

The real irony is that reading the message boards after it was first announced that there were some positive tests following the retesting is that fans have been holding their collective breath to see what sprinter(s) were caught- because the fans know that sprinters use EPO and Insulin! So why don't those in charge of drug testing know this?

Of course sprint fans can all breathe a sigh of relief now knowing who was caught, and that the retest most likely wasn't administered on their favorites samples. Which brings me back to the question of why not? On the one hand we have IOC vice-president Thomas Bach saying that no athlete should feel safe as a result of follow up doping controls to expose drug cheats. But then, on the other hand knowing that only 20% of samples were retested tells me that 80% should feel 100% safe - especially if you are not linked to an endurance event!

You see when it comes to drug testing, to paraphrase a friend, until we put tougher rules in place and hold EVERYONE accountable we will never have equity in our sport! Allowing countries to go without testing agencies in place and not testing the samples of athletes for substances that their discipline is known to have used just cries out that the sport is not serious about catching cheats! Just as using antiquated Urinalysis as the basis for testing when Blood and DNA testing are available.

Track and field conducts drug testing like a District Attorney up for reelection and in the middle of a major murder spree - it catches someone to appease the people and give the impression that the job is getting done. The problem, as with the DA and the murder spree, is that it still leaves guilty people committing wrongful acts - in this case running doped.

I'm glad that these three individuals have been caught. That's three less drug cheats lining up to race. But I can't be happy until ALL cheats are off the track AND the field - and the sport shouldn't be happy either. Knowing that the test works, I would implore the IOC to go back and check ALL available samples from Beijing - especially the sprinters, hurdlers and throwers since we KNOW that they too gain from the use of EPO and Insulin. It's the right thing to do, and should be done. After all, wouldn't you like to know the TOTAL number of drug cheats from Beijing, and wouldn't you want them ALL taken off the track? Or are we just interested in stopping a few?

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