Bio Hazard

biohazardTodays big doping news is that the UCI has opened disciplinary proceedings against Jonathan Tiernan-Locke. I’ve written some positive things about him in the past, hopeful things, wishing that his performances in 2012 were plausible, that he hadn’t betrayed Brian Smith, that he may be clean. As proceedings have progressed from a period where Tiernan-Locke could explain the changes in his blood values, onto the disciplinary phase, the probability of him being clean diminishes. The proceedings simply getting to this point means the bio-passport irregularities can’t be explained away with a simple reason, where any probable explanation can carry an element of doubt, even if he’s cleared. We’re heading into the grey area.

The Bio Passport

If you’re not aware of exactly what this is, here’s a brief description in lay mans terms, as I’m no blood expert myself I had to look into it to find out what some of the terms mean. Basically blood is taken at various periods throughout the year, the purpose of this is to determine a baseline of biological markers for each rider. This is then cross checked against pre-determined permissible levels (which I believe are quite generous, so to fail these is pretty disastrous). The markers look at blood cells, specifically at the age & percentage of them in the test sample. So in very simple terms, you biological markers should stay relatively the same, as shown by decades of medical research on the general public. A change in these can show you’ve been a very naughty boy, for example, if your sample shows older blood cells suddenly increase in percentage, then you may have transfused a bag of blood you’ve kept in the mother fridge for the last month “It’s pigs blood for my black pudding mum”. Or if you have a large concentration of very new blood cells, you may have injected the substance that stimulates red blood cell growth, EPO.

So the blood passport is an indicator of manipulation, but several things can change the percentages of the measured biological markers, such as dehydration, illness etc. For example, riders don’t have a bio passport blood samples taken from them directly after a race, to allow their bodies to regain semi-normal levels, otherwise any rider would have vast differences after a stage. We know that to try & balance levels, riders have been known to micro-dose EPO along with taking a transfusion, to attempt to balance their marker levels, even using their own testing machines, so it all gets a bit silly sometimes. If somebody wanted to maintain a boosted level all the time & set their baseline at this, it would be incredibly hard to maintain that for several years while in the testing pool, as your body would constantly be trying to return to its natural level, so it’s hard to imagine this is possible, but you never know.

Just Cycling?

You may ask why this just affects cycling, why not other sports. The answer to that is that most of them don’t do it yet. Yet again, cycling has implemented additional testing to its competitors in order to stamp out doping, or to be seen to be stamping out doping as may have been the case with the old UCI regime. WADA will be attempting to roll it out to other sports very soon, cross-country skiing is apparently already taking samples & tennis started taking samples this year, notably at Wimbledon a large amount of seeded players decided they were suddenly injured after bio blood tests were announced, while others underperformed dramatically. Introducing bio passports across other sports could have a huge effect of the top players & competitors, as testing has generally been lower than in cycling, plus in many of these sports the earning power is much greater & adds to the incentive to cheat. A commonly held belief in sport is that the higher the reward, the greater the risk that is taken & this includes the added chance of doping to exist in these sports. If it’s in cycling, it’s in just about every sport.

I’m all for tennis & football to introduce the bio passport, but whether they will or not is another matter. Cycling is predominantly an aerobic sport, so blood manipulation had a huge effect on results, it made a mockery of them for about 15 years in pro cycling. Skill based sports also benefit hugely from EPO use, blood transfusions & other types of manipulation.

Lets take an example of two hypothetical twins who both play football. As modern footballers now require a high level of fitness, they require a pile of endurance training to achieve this. Lets suggest that one of our twins decides not to do this, he takes a shortcut & inject his fitness with an EPO programme, the other twin trains aerobically for 2 to 3 hours per day, on top of his skills training. The short-cut twin is able to spend that training time on skills, set pieces etc & becomes a much more skillful player as a result. The clean twin is fatigued from the endurance training & has less time to train his skills. Which player results in being the best one, if there is no sufficient testing, bearing in mind they have both achived the same fitness level but one has 2 to 3 hours per day more skills training?

Virtually any sports person, who competes in a sport that requires any underlying fitness level can benefit fraudulently from doping, the bio passport needs implemented across the board for us to have any belief that what we see is clean, or at the very least, has minimal manipulation.

The Gist Of It

JTL is now tarnished whether or not he’s clean, we don’t really know yet, but the forthcoming ‘verdict’ will be debated, I expect there will be no dominant opinion on this, a bio-passport verdict is a polarizing subject. The bio-passport is a good thing in sporting terms, the allowances are very large, so if something is detected we can assume that there is a very valid reason for it being brought to a disciplinary proceeding.

The bio-passport can stop riders doping as much as they used to, perhaps a fraction of what they may have done before. In cycling, we have had the 50% haematocrit ceiling in the past, which other sports didn’t have, so when it’s rolled out across other sports we’ll see a much more dramatic change in the top performers, much greater than a previous multi grand-tour winner not quite firing on all cylinders as we’ve seen. If anybody watching from the experienced seat of a cycling fan, sees young footballers having heart attacks on the pitch, it reminds us of early 90’s reports of Belgian cyclists dying in their sleep, with their hearts finding it impossible to pump their EPO boosted treacle-like blood around their bodies.

The bio passport needs introduced in all sports, not just for sporting ethics reasons, but for public health reasons, we need to make sure our athletes, players & competitors in any sport don’t have to risk their health to be on the same playing field as everybody else. Would you want your son or daughter competing in a sport where they refused to implement a biological passport system?

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  1. I agree with some, but not all, of this. As a Bolton Wanderers fan, I took particular interest in the aftermath of Fabrice Muamba’s collapse at White Hart Lane. I was also interested to hear the comments of Ivan Klasnic, our former striker, who is taking legal action against his former club over a failed kidney. It might be the case that EPO is being taken by footballers. But what’s far more dangerous, and which sadly is currently “legal” (in an anti-doping sense), is painkillers. The players are loaded up with them before a match to numb the pain of tired legs, kicked ankles and shins and anything else that an anti-inflammatory drug might be able to help with during the course of the match. Normally it’s paracetamol and ibuprofen, and sometimes codeine, but other, stronger things are sometimes used too. It’s these that are causing failed kidneys and heart attacks – and it’s far more important to stop this than it is to stop EPO use for now. I’m not trying to say that doping is in any way okay – it isn’t. But the painkillers, in the amounts that they’re taken, are tantamount to a lethal legal high and something has to be done.

    1. I think most sports are in for a real shock, before Cycling’s problem was blown open, we really had no idea of its extent. Pain killers may be a big problem in football, some of which may be on the banned list, but EPO use could be just as widespread. A no needles agreement could also help, then large doses of any substance would at least become culturally unnaceptable, but may take time & doesn’t stamp it out completely. HGH is another ‘biggy’, helps repair injury damage much quicker & high levels can be masked by saying that blood spinning techniques are being used.

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