The World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) has its hands full trying to get ahead of the curve regarding cheating in sport. This is a daunting task and may seem to believe that WADA may never win the battle over the long haul.
WADA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are hoping that the sceptics are wrong and that over time international sport would be rid of cheating.
It must however be acknowledged that in the recent past the IOC has been forced to also add the thorny issue of illegal betting and match-fixing to its list of unacceptable behaviour in sport.
Still, doping remains a major problem for sport administrators across the world.
The Sharapova case
Effective 1 January 2016 WADA placed the drug, meldonium, on its list of banned substances. On 26 January, world tennis star, Maria Sharapova, tested positive for the drug.
In her defence Sharapova admitted to using the drug for some 10 years for medical reasons. At the time, of course, the drug was not on the banned list of substances by WADA. However, shortly after the announcement, several of her major sponsors separated themselves from the tennis star.
Meldonium is produced in Latvia and is originally designed for treating individuals who have an ischemic problem – where there is insufficient blood flow to parts of the body.
Interestingly, it was found that many athletes, an unusual number, were using meldonium and this prompted WADA officials to raise the red flag. Why would so many athletes be using the drug, meldonium? Did they all have ischemic problems?
Meldonium increases the flow of blood to parts of the body. This means therefore that in athletes the drug can significantly aid them in their endurance capabilities by carrying more blood to the muscle tissue. This is what concerns anti doping authorities.
Richard Pound, the founder of WADA, noted that WADA found an unusually high number of tennis players were found to have been using meldonium and it is this fact that prompted WADA to place it on the banned list of substances effective 1 January 2016.
The investigative documentary produced by the German Hajo Seppel, “referred to a 2015 study in which 17% of Russian athletes (724 of 4,316) tested were found to have meldonium in their system. A global study found 2.2% of athletes had it in their system.”(Guardian Sport, 9 March 2016).
Is it to be assumed that so many athletes, competing at the highest level in different sports globally, were all suffering from ischemic problems such that they had to use meldonium as their treatment of choice?
That Sharapova declares that she has been using the drug for 10 years must therefore raises eyebrows in tennis but also in several others ports.
The Sharapova case is due to be heard some time soon.
Tennis and more
We have often addressed the matter of doping in sport here. It has taken time for tennis to be fingered but this should come as no surprise. Boris Becker, before retiring, hinted that the sport might not be clean. At the time, there was little interest shown in pursuing his seeming insight into a sport that has been particularly high profile.
While many have been amazed by the endurance of some of the world’s best tennis players it must have been of some concern that they could go on like this from one tournament to another almost ad infinitum during any single year. Is it that they never tire?
The same has been asked of some of the best distance runners and road cyclists in the world. Finally, it was recognised that Erythropoietin (EPO) was being used by sportspeople to enhance their performance. Because EPO is usually produced by the body it took a long time before anti-doping authorities recognized that the infusion of EPO by athletes could significantly boost performance.
Swimming has had its fair share of doping scandals and suspicions remain to this day and so too have weightlifting, shooting, archery and virtually every sport.
It is amazing that athlete shave been using marijuana to facilitate calmness when performing at high levels in sports such as shooting and archery.
Similarly, the use of ‘clear’ which BALCO produced to aid in the setting of a new world 100m record by Tim Montgomery and which was also used by Marion Jones.
Evidence seems to suggest that BALCO’s chief, Victor Conte, had a wide variety of clients over time including the likes of Barry Bonds, Kelli White, Dwain Chambers, swimmer Amy Van Dyken along with numerous American Football players.
It is interesting to note that had it not been for a seeming fallout that led to a coach literally dropping off a syringe filled with ‘clear’ at the offices of the Unites States Anti Doping Agency (USADA) it may have taken a very long time for the drug cocktail to have been discovered.
Still, as one drug is uncovered many others are being produced. There seems no shortage of athletes committed to the desire to win at all costs.
Since 2002 WADA began showing interest in gene doping. While gene therapy is a medical practice of significant proportions in helping the sick, gene doping is a definitive performance-enhancing method.
According to WADA, “In gene doping, an athlete would not be suffering from any disease. Instead, normal genes would be injected into the body to increase the function of a normal cell. Scientists, including Dr. Lee Sweeney, have experimented with genes that produce insulin-growth factor 1 (IGF-1), which helps muscles grow and repair themselves. The genes, carried into the body by a harmless virus, produce more IGF-1 than the body would normally produce, stimulating muscle growth.
Friedmann envisions a scenario in which some athletes with injuries in a particular part of the body could use IGF-1 to speed healing and repair of the damaged muscles. Others might use gene doping to strengthen, for instance, a weakened knee or other damaged joint or injured tissue, which would give them a significant advantage on the playing field.
For athletes who use erythropoietin, or EPO, to enhance performance, gene doping would represent the next step. Instead of injecting themselves with the EPO itself, they would inject with the gene that produces the EPO, allowing the body to naturally produce more red blood cells.” (Play True – Issue #1 2005)
WADA has funded studies into gene doping for several years and of course has more than a passing interest in the production of a mechanism for detecting the unsavoury practice.
The Weekend Australian newspaper, published on Friday 21 May 2016 carried an exclusive story that indicated, “Australian scientists led by a Russian expat have produced a world first – a test to detect gene doping abuse – that the International Olympic Committee wants to introduce at the Rio Olympic Games.”
Anna Baoutina, the lead scientist in the Australian research, and her team, are said to have been funded since 2012 “by both the World Anti Doping Agency and the Australian government to come up with a gene doping detection test that will pass scientific and legal rigour.”
Of course the next course of action would be to test the discovery several times enough to allow the IOC to use it in Rio and catch those who may well be already engaging in the practice of gene doping.
The team is “concentrating on validating an EPO gene doping test.”
Will this new finding be a major game changer in the fight against cheating? Most certainly and we may readily find that once testing actually starts and an announcement is made regarding its use at the Rio Olympics we may well find some athletes either dropping off their performances or withdrawing from the Games altogether.
The battle rages
It is today most unfortunate that billions of dollars that should otherwise be directed as developing sport are being diverted in the fight against cheating in sport.
Recent revelations indicate that cyclists in the Caribbean appear to have been guilty of using performance-enhancing drugs and methods to gain an unfair advantage while competing in road races around the region.
The Caribbean is no exempt from athletes and their entourages being committed to winning at all costs regardless of the long term consequences on their bodies.
Who will win the fight?
We all must wait and see.