Commentary

Study of blood data not enough to nail down dope cheats

Great Britain's Mo Farah celebrates after winning the Men's 3000m at the IAAF Diamond League 2015.
Great Britain's Mo Farah celebrates after winning the Men's 3000m at the IAAF Diamond League 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

Mo Farah and seven other top British athletes have chosen to publicly disclose elements of their blood test data. The decision follows an investigation by (London's) The Sunday Times that revealed that a third of all medals in endurance events at World Championships and Olympic Games have been won by athletes judged to have given suspicious blood samples.

The newspaper published calls for all athletes to disclose their blood data to improve transparency, including from Roger Black, the former Olympic silver medal-winner. "If an athlete has nothing to hide, then why shouldn't they get their data out there?" he wrote. "It could also act as a deterrent. If an athlete knows they will have to publish their data then it would make them think twice about cheating."

But I am not so sure. My concern does not surround the issue of privacy, since the only profile that campaigners are calling to be released is the so-called off-score. This is a statistical construct relating to parameters such as haemoglobin concentration and the proportion of immature blood cells that could not, according to experts, be used to identify a medical condition.

No, my concern is more pragmatic. We know that the off-score profile, which is a core part of the biological passport, is not capable of catching sophisticated cheats. Athletes have responded to it by microdosing, thus gaining the benefits of doping, but in such a way as to avoid triggering an "abnormal" result. Catching these kinds of cheats is where the next stage in the battle between testers and dopers lies.

Moreover, it is entirely possible to have a normal off-score profile while doping to the hilt. You could have phenomenally high haemoglobin concentration with very high levels of immature red blood cells, leaving the statistical ratio between the two normal.

We know that the off-score profile, which is a core part of the biological passport, is not capable of catching sophisticated cheats. Athletes have responded to it by microdosing, thus gaining the benefits of doping, but in such a way as to avoid triggering an "abnormal" result.

This is why the anti-doping authorities do not merely look at the off-score, but also its component parts, as well as the pattern over time. All of these things, and many more, are crucial to the fight against drugs in sport.

I spoke to an anti-doping expert who had examined an off-score profile that was virtually horizontal, in the epicentre of the normal range. "It was so consistently normal that it jumped out at me," he said. "But that didn't tell me whether he was doping. The athlete was later banned for using EPO. Ten years ago, an abnormal off-score would have been suggestive of doping. Today, given that athletes know we are measuring it, it could be more indicative of an illness."

The focus on the off-score profile, therefore, could have two dangers. The first is the perception that athletes who release it have "nothing to hide". This is untrue.

Those who choose to disclose may have taken EPO or transfused blood, but have been smart enough to remain within the mandated range. The second danger is that the off-score can be abnormal for reasons that have nothing to do with doping. It can be a spike, for example, when an athlete trains at altitude or has had an illness. It would be a pity if a clean athlete were to be tainted by a "suspicious" result.

One benefit of publication may be to exert more pressure on the anti-doping authorities. When there is an abnormal off-score, there is an obligation on officials to conduct an investigation to see if the athlete has credible reasons for the result. In the absence of such reasons, the authorities have a clear duty to probe deeper and, where appropriate, issue bans.

According to The Sunday Times, the IAAF failed in its duty to conduct these investigations, which is why these abnormal results have not been converted into many actual convictions.

If the publication of the off-score were to have the effect of embarrassing lax governing bodies into conducting more robust investigations, this would be a good thing. But the danger is that it could lull the public, and possibly sports communities, into a false sense of security. Sophisticated doping today is happening without the effects showing up on the biological passport. It is here that the battle must be fought and won.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2015, with the headline 'Study of blood data not enough to nail down dope cheats'. Print Edition | Subscribe