“The Top Athletes Looking for an Edge and the Scientists Trying to Stop Them”

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The Story

“The Top Athletes Looking for an Edge and the Scientists Trying to Stop Them”

[sidebar] “The Future of Cheating in Sports” http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/The-Future-of-Cheating-in-Sports-160285295.html?onsite_source=relatedarticles&onsite_medium=internallink&onsite_campaign=SmithMag&onsite_content=The%20Future%20of%20Cheating%20in%20Sports

by Christie Aschwanden
Smithsonian, July-August, 2012

The Pitch

Dear Laura,

While athletes prepare for next summer’s Olympics in London, a select group of investigators is quietly preparing for a parallel contest taking place behind the scenes. This alternate competition pits scientists and lawyers against rogue athletes and the coaches and doctors who aid and abet their illicit performance-enhancing drug use.

Contrary to romantic notions about the purity of Olympic sport, doping and the Olympics have a long history. Ancient Greeks ingested special drinks and potions to give them an edge and in the early 1900’s, doping had become an accepted part of an athlete’s preparations. At the 1904 Olympic Games, athletes took potent mixtures of cocaine, heroin and strychnine — each team had its own secret mix. It was only when athletes began dropping dead from dope that the fight to eradicate drugs from Olympic sport began. During the 1960 Olympics, a Danish cyclist passed out during a race and later died. The coroner blamed the death on amphetamines, and the case led to a shift in attitudes toward doping. Drug testing began with the 1968 games.

Early testing focused on stimulants, but the performance boost these drugs offered were minor compared to modern doping techniques. Endurance athletes (swimmers, runners, cyclists) can up their performance by as much as 15 percent if they increase their number of red blood cells. In the old days, athletes did this by injecting their own blood (which they drew and froze in the offseason). Then along came EPO, a hormone that provokes the body to produce RBCs. It took more than a decade for anti-doping officials to develop an EPO test, and dopers soon learned to titrate the drug just so to get around the tests. As anti-doping officials tweaked the test to catch them, many cheaters went back to blood transfusions. Cheaters have also turned to
experimental blood boosters, in some cases even getting their hands on drugs still undergoing clinical trials. Researchers who study gene therapy tell me they’ve been approached by athletes looking to use gene therapy to deliver performance-enhancing genetic traits, a technique dubbed “gene doping.” Recent doping cases have uncovered organized crime rings involving doctors, coaches, athletes, corporate sponsors, and, of course, lots of money.

As doping technology has become more advanced, so too have the techniques used to detect them. The latest approach centers on the “biological passport,” a profile of numerous biological parameters that athletes submit multiple times over the year so that officials can see what’s normal for them and look for signs of doping. The biological passport shows RBCs, hematocrit, and levels of various other blood factors that are known to change in response to doping. If someone shows a spike in a particular type of blood cell or factor, it can indicate doping. The athlete’s values are constantly watched, making it more difficult for dopers to evade detection. Scientists are also collaborating with anti-doping agencies to develop tests to detect gene doping.

This story will follow the whack-a-mole arms race between anti-doping officials and cheaters and the high-tech weapons each side has turned to in an effort to gain the upper hand. The story’s narrative will follow several characters: Travis Tygart, CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, who is using police work to break up criminal drug rings, Michael Ashenden, an Australian researcher who is trying to find and stop cheaters with science, and then two athletes–a cheater caught by one of Ashenden’s tests and a clean athlete or team that will compete in London.

Michael Ashenden is an Australian scientist who has been at the front of the anti-doping fight. He helped create the EPO test and spearheaded the biological passport concept. He’s a very vocal critic of some sporting bodies when he thinks they’ve failed to act in a timely way or to adopt the doping passport. He is not afraid to piss people off. He’s a strong personality, but he’s someone who really believes in the cause and he seems to believe in the cause over politics. His science is solid, and he’s not easily intimidated — he’s been a very vocal critic of Lance Armstrong.

Travis Tygart is the CEO of the United States Anti-Doping Agency. As a lawyer for USADA in 2004, he prosecuted the most high profile doping case to come from the Athens Olympics, a case against cyclist Tyler Hamilton (who was the first person caught by a new blood doping test developed by Ashenden). Tygart won that case, and he’s done a ton to advance anti-doping efforts from a legal perspective. I interviewed Tygart in depth for a feature I wrote for Bicycling about Hamilton’s case and he’s a very interesting guy, a former athlete, and he’s a marvelous “good cop” character. USADA has had great deal of success using intelligence and police work (vs. drug testing) and he’s been a leader here. While there have been many cheaters caught via drug tests, investigative work has been just as effective and in some cases more so. (Remember Marion Jones? Her drug ring was caught via investigative work, not drug testing.)

Then it would be nice to include someone who was caught by one of Ashenden’s tests. One possibility would be Tyler Hamilton, since his case tied directly to both Ashenden and Tygert. We could also use someone(s) more recent, since there are many. The reason I like Tyler is that he’s now confessed (and pointed the finger at Lance Armstrong in a 60 Minutes special), so we know that the test was no error and we also have a long paper trail of how the fight between
Hamilton and USADA played out. Because he’d caught and now confessed, Hamilton could offer insight in the psychology of a doper. What goes through the doper’s mind?

Finally, the story would follow one or two athletes (maybe a particular team?) that are determined to compete clean, perhaps a couple of American female cyclists. Other possibilities include the men’s marathon team, swimmers or track and field runners (sprinters, perhaps).
USADA has some programs to reach out to athletes and enlist them to exert peer pressure to fight doping, so these programs might be a good source of athletes. I like the idea of using the
U.S. Women’s cycling team, because a female Spanish cyclist was the first to test positive at the last Olympics, and there was another female cyclist who was booted just before the Beijing games began, for failing a previous test. So the idea would be, here are some athletes that are working really hard and they want to be sure their competitors aren’t cheating. And here’s what they’re going through (random, unannounced drug testing throughout the year, etc.) to ensure that the field is clean. How do they feel about doping? How much privacy are they willing to give up to help the fight?

I’ve got the background to cover this story. I was a National Magazine Award finalist this year, and I’ve been writing about doping in sport since 1999. As far as I can tell, I was the first journalist to write about gene doping, for New Scientist in 2000. In addition to my various pieces for New Scientist, I have also written three doping features for Bicycling and an editorial for NPR. I’ve been interviewed as an expert on doping several times by the BBC and in 2000, the Washington Post commissioned me to write an op-ed about doping from an athlete’s perspective (I’m a former elite ski Nordic ski racer, and I’ve also raced bikes at an elite level). My 2007 Bicycling feature about Tyler Hamilton’s case continues to elicit mail from readers. I’m a contributing editor for Runner’s World, a contributing writer for Bicycling and a contributor to both Men’s Journal and Men’s Health.

Cheers, Christie

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