Wednesday, August 8, 2012

What is Doping?

With the Olympics going on a frequent subject of discussion is the possibility of "doping" among athletes. Whether it is Ye Shiwen or Taoufik Makhloufi, record performances are quickly accompanied by speculation and questions.

But for a term  thrown around a lot, "doping" is rarely defined in such discussions. So, what is "doping" anyway? Looking into the answer to this question reveals a complicated world of jurisprudence, rules and regulations, science, technology, judgment and ever present change.

You might think that doping refers to the use of performance-enhancing drugs to improve athletic performance. This is correct, but incomplete. More accurately, this definition far is too broad in practice and far to imprecise in principle.

Consider for instance the drug caffeine, which I am enjoying right at this moment at my favorite Boulder coffee shop. Caffeine is a stimulant and arguably aids athletic performance. Yet in 2012 it is not a prohibited substance (though it once was) according to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), a quasi-governmental organization, which explains:
Its use in sport is not prohibited.

Many experts believe that caffeine is ubiquitous in beverages and food and that reducing the threshold might therefore create the risk of sanctioning athletes for social or diet consumption of caffeine. In addition, caffeine is metabolized at very different rates in individuals.

Caffeine is part of WADA's Monitoring Program. This program includes substances which are not prohibited in sport, but which WADA monitors in order to detect patterns of misuse in sport.

The 2010 and 2011 Monitoring Programs did not reveal global specific patterns of misuse of caffeine in sport, though a significant increase in consumption in the athletic population is observed.
What then is doping? Here is the WADA definition, straight out of the WADA Code:
Doping is defined as the occurrence of one or more of the anti-doping rule violations set forth in Article 2.1 through Article 2.8 of the Code.
Doping is defined procedurally rather than substantively. What this means is that doping does not refer directly to the use of performance-enhancing substances, but rather to the violation of certain prohibitions, which includes certain performance-enhancing substances. The distinction may seem subtle, but it has great practical significance.

But before getting to the significance, let's take a quick look at Articles 2.1 through 2.8 of the Code to get a sense of what a violation actually is:
  • 2.1 Presence of a Prohibited Substance or its Metabolites or Markers in an Athlete’s Sample
  • 2.2 Use or Attempted Use by an Athlete of a Prohibited Substance or a Prohibited Method
  • 2.3 Refusing or failing without compelling justification to submit to Sample collection after notification as authorized in applicable anti-doping rules, or otherwise evading Sample collection
  • 2.4 Violation of applicable requirements regarding Athlete availability for Out-of-Competition Testing, including failure to file required whereabouts information and missed tests which are declared based on rules which comply with the International Standard for Testing. Any combination of three missed tests and/or filing failures within an eighteen-month period as determined by Anti-Doping Organizations with jurisdiction over the Athlete shall constitute an anti-doping rule violation
  • 2.5 Tampering or Attempted Tampering with any part of Doping Control
  • 2.6 Possession of Prohibited Substances and Prohibited Methods
  • 2.7 Trafficking or Attempted Trafficking in any Prohibited Substance or Prohibited Method
  • 2.8 Administration or Attempted administration to any Athlete In-Competition of any Prohibited Method or Prohibited Substance, or administration or Attempted administration to any Athlete Out-of-Competition of any Prohibited Method or any Prohibited Substance that is prohibited Out-of-Competition, or assisting, encouraging, aiding, abetting, covering up or any other type of complicity involving an anti-doping rule violation or any Attempted anti-doping rule violation
The WADA Code runs to 135 pages in order to explain the processes and procedures involved with identifying, sanctioning and appealing Code violations as well as the procedures for creating and updating the list of prohibited substances. The list of prohibited substances and methods runs to 9 pages, and the 2012 list can be found here in PDF.

The procedural nature of the Code sets up some interesting possibilities. For instance,
  • Imagine that a drug developer comes up with a new performance-enhancing drug that is not covered by the WADA list and based on the powers thus conferred, and Olympic athlete breaks a world record in the 100M run. It then becomes known later that the athlete took the performance-enhancing drug. Would that be doping? My reading of the Code is that the answer is "No" -- athletes are held accountable to the Code as it stands when an alleged violation takes place, and not by standards in place at a different time. For most people, this imaginary circumstance would meet the common-sense definition of "doping."
  • Imagine that a clean, record-holding athlete agrees to carry a package of medical products given to him by a colleague back home from the Olympics. The package is discovered to contain vials of prohibited substances. Under the Code, it is plausible, even likely, that this athlete would be found guilty of "doping" even though he did not take any performance enhancing substances, and would face the possibility of suspension and loss of his record.
We can invent other situations with odd outcomes as well. Such outcomes are a necessary consequence of the need to define "doping" procedurally, recognizing that the WADA prohibited list will evolve over time. It also means that efforts to combat "doping" represent a sort of arms race between WADA and those looking for extra advantage conferred by performance enhancing substances. Those in the latter category seek to secure that advantage while not violating the rules, while WADA tries to keep the rules current with the technologies of performance enhancement.

News that drug companies are working with WADA to "stay ahead of the curve" is good news for those keeping games clean. Incentives to dope are not going to be going away. WADA is thus a necessary and important institution to the integrity of sport.

Ask what seems like a simple questions and behind the definition of "doping" is a tough and never-ending battle, and one characterized by the need to draw bright lines over shades of grey. I will return to this issue with a look at some high profile cases, notably that of Lance Armstrong in the US.


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