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Editorial – Doping Problems are Not Unique to Cycling

by John Symon
August 03, 2012 – As the Games are underway this week in London for the 30th Summer Olympics running from July 27-August 12, doping in sport remains a hot topic. World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) President John Fahey made news recently trumpeting that 107 athletes worldwide had been recently caught by doping tests. “I cannot confirm how many of those would have qualified but had that been their ambition I am pleased to say they are not with us in London,” Fahey told the international Olympic Committee on July 24.

It is unclear how many of the 107 are cyclists, but presumably the list includes Frank Schleck (LUX) RadioShack-Nissan who made headlines around the world earlier this month for his failed doping control for xipamide. Schleck maintains that he was poisoned. Earlier this year, Alberto Contador (ESP) – who will rejoin Team Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank after his ban expires on Aug. 5 – was stripped of his 2010 Tour de France title because of a trace amount of clenbuterol that showed up in a doping test. Contador insists that he ingested the drug without realizing it.

Meanwhile, Lance Armstrong continues to stay in the news elbowing off accusations that he doped on his way to a record seven TdF victories. This kind of media coverage gives many people the false impression that professional cycling is the primary, if not only, sport afflicted by doping with performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs).

Is doping more prevalent in cycling than in other sports? Some authorities suggest so because the physical difficulties involved with top level cycling events. But that’s just a guess; it’s difficult to quantify illicit activities. Among those who got caught, a Wikipedia article lists 642 well-known recent doping cases (excluding athletics). Of these, 19% involve cases with cyclists, 13% with soccer players, 11% with weightlifters, xc-sking 3%, and the rest were spread across more than 30 other sports, including golf.  But if there are more failed doping tests in cycling than in other sports, this could simply be a reflection that cycling authorities are putting more effort into doping controls.

In 2011, the UCI conducted more than 13,100 urine and blood tests reports AP. To put this into perspective, some 6,250 samples are to be tested at the Olympics and Paralympics (all sports combined) in London this summer. And the National Hockey League (NHL) apparently administers between 1,400 and 2,100 tests annually. Given the larger number of tests administered by the UCI, it stands to reason that a higher number of cyclists will be caught versus athletes in other sports. Put on a level playing field, the number of dopers in cycling could well be less than in other sports.

The UCI also spends some $6 million annually to fight doping according to its website and has developed initiatives such as the biological passport, a new tool in pinpointing riders who could be cheating. In the number of tests, of initiatives, and in budget, cycling seems to be leading the pack when it comes to measures to fight doping.

According to the FIS (Federation International de Ski) website “The overall investment by FIS in its Anti-Doping program during the 2010/2011 season amounts to approximately CHF 1.5 million ($1.53m CDN). This includes both the in- and out-of-competition testing programs and various preventive, informational and educational efforts.”

Officials in some other sports associations might still deny that there is a problem in their sport, but only the naïve believe this means that athletes there are clean. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in 2005 that there was no doping problem in his league. This prompted Dick Pound, a Canadian and former president of WADA, to refute Bettman and claim that perhaps one-third of NHL players use PEDs.

While precise statistics are unavailable, it seems evident that PEDs are very prevalent in most sports today. Victor Conte, who was central to the 2002 BALCO doping scandal, allegedly supplied doping products to U.S. sprinters, Marion Jones Tim Montgomery, Kelli White, British sprinter Dwain Chambers, and NFL player Bill Romanowski. Conte recently declared that the entire history of the Olympic Games is full of corruption, cover-ups, and PED use. And Olympic authorities, he claims, have a vested interest in not cleaning things up. Read more on Conte HERE – and HERE.

But doping is not just limited to professional sports. In 2011, a 38-year-old Quebec amateur cyclist, Benjamin Martel, tested positive for synthetic testosterone. Many observers were incredulous upon hearing the news, wondering why amateur near the end of his cycling career would get involved with doping. Perhaps the risk is worth it for young pros, went the buzz, but not for a guy like Martel. Last week similar news broke about two amateur cyclists testing positive at this year’s Gran Fondo New York.

The sad reality is that doping products are big business among both pros and amateurs of all ages. Apparently a lot of men – and women – who work out in local gyms are doping; some people take steroids just to look good in a bathing suit. As our society becomes fixated on appearance while battling obesity, PEDs have become almost mainstream culture. This is despite the risk of humiliation if caught, sanctions for professional riders, adverse health effects and possibly death.

It seems very easy to go online and mail order PEDs from places in Asia. In 2005 Interpol estimated the trade of performance enhancing drugs to be approximately $19 billion dollars worldwide.  For some strange reason, more recent numbers seem difficult to find…

Perhaps we all want to perform well. Not counted in the $19 billion above is the biggest PED of all, Viagra (sildenafil). The little blue pill generated worldwide sales of $2 billion in 2010 and seems to be holding about a 50% market share against competitors Cialis and Levitra. These three medications are prescribed almost exclusively for erectile dysfunction, a condition that afflicts men, primarily in their senior years. And no, Viagra is not (yet) on WADA’s prohibited list.

I attended a recent first aid refresher course, where our instructor – a paramedic – told the class about angina, a heart condition with symptoms similar to a heart attack. He also spoke about helping angina patients take their nitroglycerin pills. But before handing the patient his pill, you have to ask if there is any possibility that the patient has taken Viagra in the past 48 hours because of an adverse effect between the two medications.

“We don’t need to ask women that question,” quipped one of my classmates. “Yes, you do!” retorted the instructor. “You would be surprised who is taking Viagra these days: men, women, boys, girls, anybody of any age could be taking it!” Ingesting Viagra apparently produces no effect in women, but millions of them are popping little blue pills regardless. Don’t ask why…

The instructor finished the class with a humorous anecdote of attending to an elderly gentleman who was suffering from angina. The gentleman proudly insisted he had never needed Viagra and the paramedic was about to help him take the nitroglycerin when the patient’s wife began gesticulating to say, “Come over here.” The paramedic went over to see the wife who whispered that, unbeknownst to him, she had been slipping Viagra into her husband’s food for years. So, some people really are taking PEDs without realizing it, just like Schleck and Contador maintain…

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