Testing for Drugs

By David

Some of you may recall that twice before this website has expressed concern at the behavior of national drug agencies. This is what we said.

“Beware though; when you are debating getting tough on the drug cheats, don’t create an out-of-control agency whose behavior may be worse than the original problem. Power corrupts and absolute power … you know the rest.”

“All this is especially true when the evidence suggests the Agency is not doing its job properly. Mistakes, errors, omissions and you begin to wonder whether the cure is turning out to be worse than the problem. The Drug Agency’s performance should be subject to the same critical tests as everyone else to ensure its performance does protect sports people.”

The fidelity of our concern was confirmed yesterday when Tour de France winner, Floyd Landis, lost his arbitration doping case. By a vote of two to one the finding that Landis used synthetic testosterone was confirmed. Our principal fear however is not whether Landis used testosterone. Compared to other matters raised by this case, whether Landis is a cheat or not is unimportant. There are many in the drug police world who will claim that “getting their man”, that stripping Landis of his Tour title is a victory for us all. The CEO of the US Anti-Doping Agency, Travis Tygart has already called the decision “a victory for all clean athletes and everyone who values fair and honest competition.” He may well be jubilant, but in our view there is little to celebrate.

The potential damage to every athlete “who values fair and honest competition” is not in the behavior of Landis. The real dangers are the mammoth inefficiencies, deception and disgraceful behavior of the testing laboratory and US drug agency. Don’t take my word for it. Read the arbitration report. Upholding and dissenting arbitrators agreed on one thing. Aspects of the testing protocol and hearing procedures were a shambles; for example.

The initial test for testosterone is a relatively simple procedure called the T-E ratio test. The French Laboratory (LNDD) so badly handled this easy test that the results were inconclusive and could not be used. Authorities had to use the backup IRMS test, acknowledged as very complicated test, requiring a high level of technical skill. The obvious question is, if the laboratory could not get the T-E ratio test right, why on earth should we believe they can manage the much more complicated IRMS procedure?

The panel of arbitration also found that the chain of command in controlling the urine sample was inadequate. The way the test was run on the machine, the way the machine was prepared, the lack of appropriate laboratory training and the “forensic corrections” done on the laboratory paper work were all said to be below standard. The arbitration report concluded this section as follows, “If such practices continue, it may well be that in the future, an error like this could result in the dismissal” of a positive finding. For all of us that is real scary stuff.

The USADA did not emerge unscathed. Their attorneys went after Landis’ character with nasty and unnecessarily mean aggression. The liberties they took in evidence discovery would never have been allowed in a regular court. Without question the USADA were out to get their man. Their every action smacked of scoring a win, a blood lust to strip an athlete of his title and his career. National drug agencies have legislative, administrative and judicial powers and, without appropriate checks and balances, they exercise them badly. In this case the USADA has acted almost as poorly as the New Zealand agency did when it prosecuted Trent Bray after his sample had been mistakenly left on a laboratory shelf, in the sun, for two weeks. One day national drug agencies may see their role as working with athletes in a “fair and honest” search for the truth: one day, but not just now.

Why should all this be a concern? Imagine this, you have just been asked to take a urine drug test. As you wait for nature to take its course, reflect on the Landis case. Will the laboratory staff, who test your sample have been properly trained, will the laboratory screw up the test, will the machine they use be set up properly, will it be clean, will your paper work be changed? And if by some chance one of the readings is out of line, those nice USADA people, asking for your sample, will they come after you, walking roughshod over the conventions of natural justice, bent on ending your career and your good name? Is there any possibility of them helping you determine what has gone wrong? Yes, there is good cause for concern.

You may not be able to cross your legs in the hope of good luck at that moment, but I’d certainly cross my fingers. The Landis case says you may need a bit of luck.