All the commitment, drive and determination in the world isn’t going to mean much if you don’t have enough testosterone to build muscle size and strength, regulate body fat, stimulate red blood cells and increase bone mass.
It’s hardly surprising once science found a way to rig the genetic lottery and push testosterone production past natural thresholds, the lure would prove too strong for a few unscrupulous bad apples in the otherwise noble sporting barrel.
Except is it just those few? Highly sensitive International Association of Athletics Federation data was recently leaked in July 2015.
It allegedly showed the “extraordinary extent of cheating” at elite level, we examine how the temptation of artificially enhanced testosterone may be more persuasive than we ever previously thought.
Suspicious Test Results
In August 2015, British publication The Sunday Times and German broadcaster ARD/WDR gained access to the results of 12,000 blood tests from 5,000 athletes between 2001 and 2012. What they found was widespread cheating on a scale rarely if ever seen before.
The apparent frequency of this doping raises real questions about the extent to which a culture of deception runs in athletics and just how deeply it is engrained.
The Sunday Times and ARD/WDR engaged the services of renowned anti-doping experts Robin Parisotto and Michael Ashenden to investigate the data. Parisotto subsequently claimed “”Never have I seen such an alarmingly abnormal set of blood values. So many athletes appear to have doped with impunity, and it is damning that the IAAF appears to have idly sat by and let this happen.” For his part, Ashenden said the files showed athletics to be in the same ‘diabolical situation’ as cycling in the light of the Lance Armstrong scandal and added that the discovery represented a “shameful betrayal of [the IAAF’s] primary duty to police their sport and to protect clean athletes.”
So what exactly did the two experts find in the data? Amongst some of the more notable abnormalities were:
- Around a third of medallists, 147, 55 of which won gold, in endurance events over the time covered had recorded what would be considered suspicious test results, yet none of them were stripped of their medals.
- Over 800 athletes, 1 in 7 of those present in the files, have recorded blood tests described by one of the experts as “highly suggestive of doping or at the very least abnormal”.
- Ten medals at London 2012 – then branded the cleanest games in history – were won by athletes with dubious test results.
- In some instances, all three athletes with podium finishes could be said to give reason for suspicion.
- Russia emerges as “the blood testing epicentre of the world” with more than 80% of the country’s medals won by questionable athletes, while Kenya had 18 medals won by dubious athletes.
- Athletes are increasingly using blood transfusions and Erythropoietin, known as EPO, micro-doses to boost the red cell count.
These revelations cannot yet be called conclusive evidence of doping, but they do severely call in to question the efforts being made by official anti-doping bodies to tackle the problem as well as drastically undermining the effectiveness of measures already in place.
With the World Athletic Championships in Beijing looming next month, it’s hard to imagine how the timing for the sport as whole could be worse.
Proof or no, many will no doubt now watch proceedings with a heightened sense of mistrust. The IAAF, who it is believed were planning to block the story with an injunction before it broke, said in their statement that it was “aware of serious allegations made against the integrity and competence of its anti-doping programme” and went on to reiterate that the allegations are “largely based on analysis of an IAAF database of private and confidential medical data which has been obtained without consent.”
The organisation claimed to be “preparing a detailed response to both media outlets and will reserve the right to take any follow-up action necessary to protect the rights of the IAAF and its athletes.”
With elections to choose a new IAAF president due on the 19th and 20th of August 2015, anti-doping approaches are a corner stone of both candidates, Lord Sebastian Coe and Sergey Bubka’s campaigns.
Former Olympic pole vault champion, Bubka said “We will not stop the fight. We know that in the 21st century doping is the biggest danger and there will be zero tolerance. If we need to strengthen our rules and regulations we will do it.” The Federation points to the introduction of the biological passport – a system which monitors long term blood values specific to the individual and registers any abnormalities – in 2009 as evidence of an evolving strategy to battle drug cheats; but also claims that before that time it aggressively pursued all test results which could be deemed atypical.
Since the passport, the IAAF claim they have “pursued more cases under the passport system than all other anti-doping organisations together”, and is spending $2m a year on combating cheating. “As a percentage of overall annual budget this is the highest of any sport,” it added.
Questionable Track Record
It has been a tumultuous few years for the IAAF and athletics in general. In 2014, the same German media outlet which worked with the Sunday Times on the most recent controversy, accused the IAAF of helping to cover up systematic doping in Russian athletics, accusations which it denied and are now being investigated by the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Then in June esteemed athletics coach, Alberto Salazar was accused of giving his charge, American 10,000m record holder and silver medallist, Galen Rupp, performance enhancing steroids. Salazar coaches British Olympic champion, Mo Farah too, though he was never implicated and the fact that he was absent from this latest list of suspicious athletes will strengthen the case for his defence.
Safe Use Of Testosterone
Realistically, it’s hard to ever see a complete end to the use of synthetic testosterone in sport. As fast as testing moves, methods of evading such tests seem to move faster.
The continued and extensive use of drugs in competition will come as no surprise to the likes of Oxford Professor Julian Savulescu, who has long suggested that the disparity between the rewards of getting away with taking drugs and the punishment for getting caught will make abuse widespread and inevitable.
Savulescu has even controversially championed a sort of eating in class solution to performance enhancement, i.e. it’s only allowed if you’ve brought enough for everyone. If and how the various sporting organisations and anti-doping bodies ever get the elite competition completely clean is something we will have to wait to find out, but in the mean time we should all bear in mind what should be viewed as a silver lining of sorts.
Steroid use in sport is an advert for the power of testosterone. A grotesque, overblown, dangerous one, but an advert nonetheless.
It’s heartening that neither Mo Farah nor Usain Bolt are named in these latest shaming documents, as they then serve as an example of the power inherent in the naturally occurring testosterone. I’m not promising Usain Bolt, but boosting your own testosterone is definitely the quickest way to reaching your full potential.