Published August 8, 2013
Alex Rodriguez, the New York Yankees star third baseman, is one of 13 major league baseball players charged with taking performance-enhancing drugs and, in some cases, lying about the matter to investigators. Major League Baseball (MLB) announced it would suspend the players for 50 games or more. Rodriguez will miss 211 games, but may appeal the decision.
The primary evidence implicating the players in doping was testimony from Anthony Bosch, who ran a now-defunct chemical anti-aging company in Florida called Biogenesis. Last year, after being granted immunity by MLB from any legal proceedings, he admitted that he had supplied restricted substances to the athletes in question.
Yet there were no test results that backed up the claim. And that raises the question: Why not?
Professional athletes are tested regularly for performance-enhancing substances, but baseball players have never been tested as intensively as runners, cyclists, and some other athletes. Baseball players must take a simple urine test at the start of every season and then at one random time during play. More extensive blood tests that can detect more complex substances are conducted only with reasonable cause.
MLB officials have said that it's logistically challenging to test players because they are frequently on the road. Even randomly timed tests aren't so random: Players generally know to expect a "surprise" test at their home stadium in the second half of the season—the time when incentives to dope are the greatest.
Annals of Testing
In fact, testing is problematic in many sports. The era of tests for banned substances began in 1960, after 23-year-old Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen fell off his bike and died during a race. He was found to have taken high doses of amphetamines that gave him less need for rest and more time for training.
Photograph from Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Since then, athletes have adopted ever more creative ways of using drugs to gain an edge; testing companies and regulating agencies have usually been at least one step behind.
Testers came prepared to screen for stimulants like ephedrine and amphetamine at the 1972 Munich Olympics, but by then athletes had started taking anabolic steroids, substances that metabolize quickly, help cells grow, and enable muscles to endure more strain.
When testing for steroids arrived at the Olympics four years later, athletes were turning to naturally occurring hormones like testosterone; illicit levels of these hormones can be hard to detect through screening. In the following years, as better tests were developed to detect artificially spiked levels of testosterone, some athletes experimented with blood transfusions and injections of erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone originally designed to treat anemia by stimulating the production of red blood cells.
"In the win-at-all-costs culture of elite-level sports, athletes are often going to innovative measures to gain a performance-enhancing advantage and avoid detection," says Matt Fedoruk, director of science for the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).
How Doping Works
All athletes want to run faster, lift more weight, hit more home runs, or out-pedal their opponents. Different doping techniques help achieve those various goals. Substances like EPO increase the blood's capacity for carrying oxygen to help someone run longer. Others, like corticosteroids, are taken in training to help the body repair itself faster, allowing an athlete to train harder.
Athletes have, along the way, figured out how to beat tests. The most high-profile case may be that of Lance Armstrong, the seven-time winner of the Tour de France. Earlier this year he admitted that throughout much of his competitive career, he doped strategically to avoid testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Rather than inject EPO moments before a race--where he knew that testers would be waiting at the finish line--the cyclist scheduled doping during training rides and between races. Working with a group of physicians, some of whom may still face prosecution by federal investigators, Armstrong was also able to keep track of when certain substances would appear in his system and how quickly they would metabolize.
Professional doping isn't always so sophisticated. Sometimes athletes simply use substances that the testers are no longer looking for. "Some athletes will resurrect a drug that went through a clinical trial in the '50s or '60s," says Daniel Eichner, director of the Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory in Utah and a former USADA researcher. Regulators are so busy monitoring new and innovative drugs, they simply lack the time and focus to measure the older ones.
A federal investigation revealed that in 2000, athletes like runner Marion Jones and baseball slugger Barry Bonds were going to the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) to obtain anabolic steroids that weren't on testers' radar.
In the years that followed, Tyler Hamilton, a former cyclist and teammate of Armstrong's, was on the cutting edge of blood transfusions, a new kind of doping even harder to detect by screening. Hamilton would simply swap his blood with the blood of a donor who had a higher count of red blood cells, which can improve endurance. But in tests, a higher than normal red-blood-cell count would not signal any violations.
Armstrong admitted doing the same thing in his mea culpa interview with Oprah Winfrey in January. He also admitted to sometimes removing some of his own blood, freezing it, then injecting it back into his body. The process of thawing would increase his blood's oxygen-carrying capacity before races.
Testing Not Very Effective
While global regulating authorities spend millions of dollars on testing, very few players actually are implicated by tests. Of the hundreds of thousands of athletes in all U.S. sports, only 116 have been put on the USADA's list of sanctioned athletes since 2010. Some, such as soccer goalie Hope Solo, escaped with just a public warning after a specified diuretic was found in a prescription drug she was taking.
As with Major League Baseball's new scandal, most busts come from testimony rather than physical evidence. A smaller portion come from athletes who don't make themselves available for testing on repeated occasions.
Only about a third of doping cases are reportedly brought to light by positive tests.
That is because the tests themselves aren't effective, says Charles Yesalis, a health and human development researcher who is a professor emeritus at Penn State University. "These baseball players just got caught by a fluke," he says. Sports leagues don't have police departments or police powers. They can do sting operations, but they can't really investigate athletes to uncover doping.
Yesalis says eliminating the incentives for doping would require more severe punishments.
Can It Be Stopped?
Since the late 1990s, regulating agencies like the USADA have taken several steps aimed at cracking down on blood doping and the use of EPO. A big leap came in 1999, after a pair of Swiss researchers had the idea to create what they called a "biological passport," which is a computerized record of an athlete's body, allowing for more nuanced assessments.
Rather than test for banned substances, the passport keeps a running log of an athlete's biomarkers over time. Spiked levels of blood cells or testosterone between tests would imply cheating. Not all athletes could be kept in the system, at least not at first, but regulators hope that the much more advanced way to spot impropriety would provide a powerful disincentive to doping.
The passport has so far been used primarily for endurance athletes—runners, cyclists, and swimmers. Without statistics on how many athletes have changed their behavior as a result of the system, however, it's hard to know how well it has worked.
Testing regimens for athletes became more rigorous around 2004, when USADA and other sport-governing boards introduced off-season testing and started paying unannounced visits to athletes at home or while training, rather than just after races.
Regulators also started collaborating with drug makers to allow them to forecast new substances coming to market. When a Swiss pharmaceutical company made a third-generation EPO in 2007, testers showed up at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing with a test ready. They caught a handful of athletes, including Spanish cyclist Maria Isabel Moreno and Greek race-walker Athanasia Tsoumeleka.
Some of these changes have meant that even athletes without a positive test can be banned from competing. If a professional athlete doesn't make herself available for testing or misses a test three times, for instance, she will face suspension. If a cyclist is caught simply in possession of a restricted substance, he will be added to USADA's list of banned athletes. A weightlifter will effectively end her career if she is caught trafficking banned substances.
Future of Testing
But serious roadblocks to detection remain. USADA's modest staff—earlier this year it had 43 employees and 55 testing contractors around the country—working with governing boards of various sports simply can't keep tabs on all of America's athletes. In poorer countries, the ratio of regulators to athletes is often lower, enraging banned U.S. athletes who see their counterparts in Jamaica or Eastern Europe facing less rigorous oversight.
Athletes who eventually come clean or get outed, including Lance Armstrong, often claim that they had to dope to compete on a level playing field. "It's like saying we have to have air in our tires or we have to have water in our bottles," Armstrong told Winfrey, trying to justify his cheating. "[Doping] was, in my view, part of the job."
Doping tests will continue to become more advanced. The biological passport will be able to store more precise metrics, and illuminate nuanced patterns that signal impropriety. But testing will always have its limits.
Some people have natural very high testosterone levels. Some have amazing vision. Ted Williams was supposed to be able to see stitching on baseballs being pitched. How is it any more unfair to increase your hormone levels to those of the highest level in the sport than it is to wear glasses or get Lazik to maximize your vision to those of the best in the sport? Or Tommy John's surgery? Baseball is boring without big hitters.
I naturally have 20-12 vision and myopia, so I have experience with super-normal vision and less than average vision until it was corrected with lenses. In baseball it only made a difference at very high levels of the sport. At 20-25 a baseball looks blurry coming in to the plate when batting and I could not resolve the laces. I was consistently fooled by good breaking pitches and struck out quite often. I had to guess fastball or guess breaking ball and hope I was right. At 20-12 I could see the laces and therefore I could see which way and how much the ball was spinning. The spin direction and rate of spin tells you exactly which way the ball will break and how much. Fastballs spin slowly or not at all and are easily identified as such, so when I saw low spin I would swing early. Elite pitchers who learned how to spin their changeup the same way their fastball spins could still fool me into swinging too early, however. The more the ball spins the slower it's velocity and the more it will break in the direction of the spin. For example, a rapidly spinning ball in a top-down direction that is low in the strike zone would break into the dirt and become unhittable, so I would know not to swing at it.. At the highest levels good pitchers had breaking balls that would break 6 to 12 inches, so identifying these beforehand made a huge difference in my batting average and walk-strike-out ratio. At lower levels (college summer leagues), the pitcher's breaking pitches only break 3 to 6 inches and hitters with exceptionally good reflexes can sometimes keep up with them even if they have less visual acuity.
Steroids with HGH confer some very hefty advantages for athletes, primarily fewer injuries and greater strength which translates into faster running speed, increased throwing velocity, and faster bat speed in baseball. Baseball is a much different game, as we have seen at the pro level, when these two agents are widely used. Roger Clemens is a great example of their influence. The reason Boston let him go is that he was becoming injury prone and his performance was notably waning. The end was not far off, or so most experts thought. Steroids resurrected his career in my opinion and the predictions of his arm's demise never became reality. He remained a dominant pitcher for over 10 years more. The home run mania early in the new millennia was obviously steroid/HGH fueled with some incredible results.
Now was my 20-12 vision an unfair advantage? Arguably so, but I did not cheat to get it, it is a gift of nature. My problem with performance enhancing drugs is that they are not natural and potentially hazardous. What is worse is that only some players use them, which makes the playing field uneven, with those users getting an unfair advantage over those who do not use. Most importantly, their widespread use changes the very nature of the game that is produced. Do fans prefer to see the steroid-fueled super-human heroics, or do they want that pristine purity of natural competition? The sport has to decide. But whatever the choice, all of the players must be made aware so they can choose if they want to participate. If steroids/HGH are legal, then they must be made available for all players to use, so the competition is fair. In my own opinion, I am becoming more open towards supporting HGH, and possibly even anabolic steroid use for players that are injury prone and wind up on the DL, so long as a medical need is established. But that will likely spawn a cottage industry of crooked doctors. So long as performance enhancers are banned, there will always be a need for better testing and catching those who try to beat the system.
@James Hernon The reason it's unfair is that the rules of the sport prohibit it. Plain and simple. If the rules allowed doping then that would be a totally different story. Honest athletes should not be punished for following the rules. It's like any other rule in baseball. No corked bats, no spitballs, no doping. Follow the rules.
@Harry Callahan @James Hernon So apparently you don't see the unfairness of lazik surgery to give an advantage to someone who doesn't have the vision of a great hitter. The comment wasn't about what the rules are, but comparison of fairness. So, if the rules are changed to allow steroids, HGH and other PEDs, then it is completely fair to use all of that, and the only question is who decides rules and invents arbitrary fairness.
@Harry Callahan That's kind of the point. You can get a doctor's prescription but it is still against the rules, howver legal. Guys have been suspended for games because they had strep throat and the prescribed cough syrup had codeine. I can get a prescription for HGH or testerone and it's perfectly legal.
Right, if the rules are changed then I would be totally OK with drugs in sports. But that's a big if. Also, MLB rules cannot override the law. The law currently prohibits many of these substances without a prescription.
Woah, this article contains some major inaccuracies. Hamilton and Armstrong never admitted to transfusing anyone else's blood. Despite their penchant for lying, they are probably not lying about this. There is no additional performance benefit compared to using your own blood, and the risks of contracting blood-borne diseases are enormously greater when using someone else's blood than when using your own. Not only could a mistake like this end your career or even your life, these athletes also need to be at 100% health for peak performance, and can't afford to risk illness.
Freezing and thawing blood also does not yield any performance benefits compared to a blood transfusion without freezing. Actually, pint for pint, the performance benefit of frozen blood is slightly less, since about 10% of the cells die during freezing. The advantage of freezing blood is that it stays good for one year, compared to one month for refrigerated blood. There is a limit to the rate at which blood can be drawn. Frozen blood simply allows you to store more blood before a race.
OK, that was kind of gory, but these details matter, and we might as well get them right.
At the most fundamental level, this is the reality we face once we developed the capability to enhance ourselves with drugs. There is more of a focus on sports, but it happens everywhere, for example people taking adhd meds to study harder, etc. Even Tylenol and Advil could be consider performance enhancers since without these pain relievers, many business reports etc would be delayed due to the inability of people to work effectively with a head ache. Of course there is a big difference with sports doping, which is many of these techniques could be very dangerous. But all that aside, the question becomes one of the nature of competition and the ability to tilt the table. It has been the same for thousand of years, just in different forms. So SHOULD the question really be about how we prioritize competition? Far fetch to think about, Yes. But real progress often involves massive shifts of thought.
@Mark Gibbas The focus on sports is because sports is, in essence, all about the competition, and this competition has rules, and those rules forbid drugs, and people who break the rules violate the integrity of sports. Cheating in sports basically destroys the whole point of sports.
Real life is not like that. If I perform better in my job, no one is going to complain. Unless you break the law, there are no rules against enhancing your performance in the workplace. Study drugs are a borderline case, since grades are a form of competition, and some universities do have rules against drugs. But once you get out into the real world, no boss or supervisor is going to care how you get it done.
An unequal playing field is totally OK in the business world. The whole point of a free market is to select for the strong performers. But in sports, an equal playing field is a basic requirement of competition. We expect athletes to follow the rules of the game. Cheating in sports is unfair to athletes who follow the rules.
Testing will, indeed,always have its limits. However, my current mass spectrometers are 1000x more sensitive than the ones currently being used in drug testing and have 5 decimal place better accuracy. When detention is at levels well below that which causes an effect on their physiology, the dope becomes not worth taking. Those that think they will stay ahead of science forever, need to just revisit history...in time these machines will nail them all and their behavior will be clear for all to know...
If your 2 choices are to dope your way to the top or die in squalid poverty because you can't earn a buck, you dope.
You do what you gotta do, ya know?
http://llltexas.com <- my blog
Why is the government meddling in sports anyway? Let the sports teams police themselves.
One more sign that the government has gotten too big.
@Nic Guy USADA is a non-government organization and is what the US Olympic team and others use to police themselves.
Let me tell you, years ago I used to train Race Horses. I can tell you from that experience that the pressure to "win" in ANY sport is tremendous. At Race Track, they don't call it "doping" they call it "hopping". Some people "hop" horses. But I heard it said so many times, "I don't hop a horse to win. I hop him just to have an equal chance." When the top competitors are nearly all doing it, you do not have a chance. "Hop" won't make a horse run any faster than he could to begin with, but if he is not feeling his best, it will make him "fire". It will tend to allow him to have more ENDURANCE for awhile, but it is living beyond your means. There will be a "Pay up" time sooner or later. BB
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