How to Fight Doping in Sports

Few sports performances are regarded without suspicion these days. Nowhere was this more evident than in the recent Tour de France, where the winner, Chris Froome of the British Team Sky, spent three weeks responding to skeptics about his exceptional performances, which rivaled those of doped champions, including Lance Armstrong.

Then there are the recent doping allegations made by several athletes and staff against the former marathoner Alberto Salazar, head coach of the Nike Oregon Project, a training program for elite distance runners. (Mr. Salazar has denied the allegations.) Among the project’s athletes is the double Olympic gold medalist Mo Farah, who was questioned by the United States Anti-Doping Agency last week as part of its investigation into Mr. Salazar. Though Mr. Farah has not been accused of wrongdoing, the head of U.K. Athletics said recently that his association with his coach “is going to be dogging him, reputationally, for some time.”

Leandro Castelao
Leandro Castelao

What Mr. Farah and Mr. Froome also share, aside from their current success, is a remarkable transformation from good to great, as mature athletes. Both were successful professionals, but neither would have been expected to become among the greatest ever in their respective pursuits. Such profound transformations feed skepticism even more, because history has shown us that they are often achieved through nefarious pharmacological means.

Both men have invoked work ethic, attitude, innovation, altitude training, diet and attention to detail to explain their rise and current achievements. They are asking a skeptical public to trust them.

Still, those explanations have been used by athletes before, in particular, by Mr. Armstrong and his United States Postal Service team, and by the track star Marion Jones, who was stripped of the three gold and two bronze medals she won in the 2000 Olympics after admitting to using steroids. Sophisticated doping techniques, undetectable drugs and, in the case of Mr. Armstrong, his reported collusion with cycling authorities, enabled them to cover up their use of performance-enhancing drugs.

So what can a clean athlete do to rebut these suspicions? History has demonstrated that trust built on traditional antidoping controls is at best hopeful and at worst naïve.

Instead, the best athletes can offer to a skeptical public is a credible explanation for the plausibility of their performances. That can and should begin with a much greater push for transparency.

It is here where Team Sky and Mr. Froome in particular have missed an opportunity. Sky entered the sport of cycling with a zero-tolerance policy and a promise of openness, but some observers believe it has reneged on that commitment. They point out that Sky hired riders and staff with doping pasts. And during the Tour de France, the issue of transparency was front and center in the antidoping conversation, with many pushing Team Sky to reveal Mr. Froome’s physiological and performance numbers.

While the team did release some of his data, selectively sharing some data but not all is insufficient to give full context to evaluating overall performance. In this instance, half-transparency may be even worse than none.

And data is important, the more of it, the better, because performance has implications for how the body functions. These physiological functions can be measured to support the plausibility of a performance. To climb a mountain in the Tour de France at 13 miles per hour requires a certain power output, measured in watts, that, in turn, requires a specific combination of physiological attributes. The maximum volume of oxygen that a body can use, or VO2 max, is one of those attributes. So, too, are efficiency, the ability to use energy without wastefulness and fatigue resistance.

The combination of these physiological attributes sets the upper limit for what is possible. The same is true for running, and for any sport in which a performance can be related back to measurable physiological qualities. If performance, captured accurately and independently, were married to this physiological data and measured at various stages of the season, it would provide context and possibly some degree of trust in the athlete.

Even more insight might be gained by superimposing performance on physiology and what is known as an athlete’s biological passport. The passport, introduced in cycling in 2008 as an antidoping tool, measures attributes of an athlete’s blood to detect abnormalities over time. When an athlete dopes, either by using the hormone EPO to increase his or her red blood cell count, or by reinfusing blood for the same purpose, the passport can detect these changes from the baseline.

Data on an athlete’s biology and physiology, measured frequently over time, could explain much about a result. Disclosing this information in a fully transparent system would not only be a show of openness, but would also provide measures for informed observers to evaluate what they are witnessing.

Another area where disclosure would start to win back trust is on the use of what are known as therapeutic use exemptions. These exemptions are granted by the sport’s controlling bodies to athletes who are able to prove that they need them for a genuine medical reason (asthma is the most common one). An exemption allows an athlete to use an otherwise banned drug or treatment. The problem is the abuse of these exemptions, and the growing perception that they provide a loophole that ambitious coaches and athletes are actively exploiting for performance benefits.

Many of the allegations made against Mr. Salazar involve using these exemptions so some of his athletes could gain an unfair advantage. These exemptions should be disclosed, and independent testing should verify that the condition requiring an exemption actually exists.

Transparency is not, and will never be, proof that an athlete has not doped. Testing must continue: It acts as a deterrent to at least control the extent of doping, if not to eradicate it. Trust, once lost, is hard to earn back, but the combination of testing and transparency just might help to regain the confidence of those who wish to believe in clean, competitive sport.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas are exercise physiologists who run the website The Science of Sport.

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