2013/02/15

Testing, testing, 1, 2 and 3 through 10

Why does anyone take up the mantle of professional sportsperson other than because they believe they can win and make money (a living at least) doing it without the additional burden of a day job.

Well, the recent Australian doping and organised crime report got me thinking...

I know that there have been many impassioned pleas to not tar everyone with the same brush and that "we're" not all dopers. But I can no longer bring myself to see it that way. The pervasiveness of cheating (doping, match fixing) runs way too deep to trust anyone - even the good guys - you know who you are. I am sorry to say that, but we all brought this upon ourselves. Whether by upholding the "omerta" or just supporting an obviously dodgy sports discipline, even tiddly winks falls into that category, we are all to blame.

So let us return to why professional sportspeople do what they do. They do it to ultimately make money. Fame is only a secondary consideration and a by-product of winning. In order to "bring home the bacon" you need to win and win consistently. Even in a relatively small pro cycling community in South Africa, there is tough competition for podium places and as most local pro's will tell you the income is pretty much mediocre - making building a viable pro career here is more a labour of love.

That aside, we still have a doping scandal that could derail the huge strides cycling has taken in the last 15 years. Instead of having to wait a year between broadcasts of the Tour de France (like when I was younger) there are local programs devoted to cycling, major races are regularly televised, the Absa Cape Epic has had major coverage throughout the world. And yet, the scandal plaguing sport and cycling in particular could reverse this all. The proliferation of races in the last 10 years leaves us beggared for choice, but we have lost a number of sponsors since last year and competing with the explosion of trail running etc could draw some of the money away.

So I thunk and thunk. 

Dope testing is part of the problem. It is evident from the USADA findings and more recently admissions from riders that it is relatively (harder now) easy to circumvent testing. I mean by this that it is unlucky if you get bust because you are ignorant or underestimated the half life of your preferred cocktail (like the bloke in last years Epic that took a drug with an extremely long half life - duh?).

If testing is the issue, then testing must be where we start to resolve the problems in our sport. Sure we could do with a TRC to expose the gory underbelly, but we need more consistent and independent testing.

What constitutes consistent testing? I think that if you are in the money, you should be tested no questions asked. So if this is 1, 2 and 3 (possibly in the elite, vet and sub vet even though the latter are largely amateur categories - there is suspicion that doping is rife in these too) then so be it. There is, by implication, a problem with this testing regime, what if you are one of those guys who rides a lot of races and end up getting tested every time, you may look like a pin cushion. While there are other riders who have a much more targeted race schedule who would be tested less frequently.

There is also out of competition testing that needs to take place regularly. The blood passport needs to be more complete in order to "spot" suspicious blood values more easily, but from what I read in Dave George's interview in the Tread magazine recently, even those living in major centres are not tested sufficiently. So those in remote area's are tested even less. The blood passport is about trending, so if there is insufficient testing the data is all over the place and no conclusions can be drawn from that.

I think that 3 out of competition tests a year determined on a random cycle, with a minimum if 3 months between each sample,  could be a start in developing a more accurate blood value trend. But this all depends on how active the athlete is during the year. As we have seen in recent years, more established main stream sports rarely have a break or off season any more. As highlighted in various reports of late it is often in the off season when most doping takes place.

While these suggestions are not scientifically formulated, it is just an educated guess that this regime may assist in reducing the incidence or temptation to dope.

I have concerns though

One of the arguments against more frequent testing is cost. This could be a red herring as well, but cost is a factor that prevents more frequent testing. We do have a WADA certified lab in our backyard. And the recent retesting of 50 riders samples are being tested there. So it is not the cost of transport that is hiking the cost of testing, but range the range of things that are being tested for that could be a factor.

The other major concern is the under funding of doping agencies. The UCI continually complains, and in fact cut testing in the last few years, primarily due to cost. The Institute of Drug Free Sport in South Africa is significantly underfunded but still manages to carry out its mandate as best as it can.

What is also of concern is that many athletes are based out of main centres and some even spend their off season in a different jurisdiction entirely - out of reach of their own agency. So for testing purposes the jurisdictional boundaries have to be dismantled.

So all this does not bode well for a more structured testing regime.

In the end

As David George mentioned in his recent interview with Tread magazine, testing is all to easy to circumvent if you really want to. Further to this if you read the recent "revelations" coming from Operation Puerto or Micheal Rasmussen it is evident that it is easy to buck the system.

By taking some of the "random"-ness out of testing we may be able to manage our athelets better by discouraging doping and when the winners are regularly winning "clean" then we can say with more measured confidence that our sport is also "clean".

God knows we have had enough attention focussed on cycling. And we all know that some disciplines - cough, cough - are much worse. But this is our sport and with or without the authorities, we have to fix it.

So test them all, if you are in the money expect to be tested.
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