After years of denial, Floyd Landis–the cyclist who was stripped of his winning title to the 2006 Tour de France after failing a drug test–admitted last week that he did take performance enhancing drugs. And his confession is causing a stir, partly because he also implicated former teammate Lance Armstrong, seven-time-winner of the Tour de France (Armstrong denies the accusation), and partly because of the particular drugs he fessed up to taking:
Mr. Landis said in [several emails to cycling officials] that during his career, he and other American riders learned how to conduct blood transfusions, take the synthetic blood booster Erythropoietin, or EPO, and use steroids. All these practices are banned in cycling. Mr. Landis said he started using testosterone patches, then progressed to blood transfusions, EPO, and a liquid steroid taken orally. [Wall Street Journal]
EPO shook the cycling community in the 1990s, when police raids during the 1998 Tour de France (dubbed the “Tour de Dopage“) found that several riders were using EPO. It looks like the drug, believed to be thwarted by drug tests, has returned.
As 80beats reported back in March, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has been experimenting with so-called biological passports to curb cheating in sports. Biological passports are electronic records for individual athletes that provide baseline measurements of substances in their blood and urine that officials can track to catch juiced athletes, since a sudden deviation from the baseline would suggest funny business.
Now, the WADA has released a new set of guidelines to monitor athletes’ blood profiles for evidence of performance enhancing substances. The guidelines take effect immediately and provide advice to antidoping agencies on how to put programs in place to collect and store athletes’ blood samples and monitor them for any variations that could indicate doping—without an actual positive test [The New York Times]. The new guidelines are necessary to keep pace with increasingly sophisticated cheating techniques, such as hormone injections, self-blood transfusions, and potentially gene doping.
Unscrupulous athletes may soon find it much harder to get away with juicing. Anti-doping agencies are trying out “biological passports,” electronic records for individual athletes which provide baseline measurements of substances in their blood and urine. The record is built up over time through repeated sampling, and later tests can look for suspicious changes that may indicate the use of performance enhancing substances. As cycling has been particularly hammered by allegations of doping athletes, the International Cycling Agency has lead the charge on biological passports. Over a year, it took around 8300 blood samples from 804 cyclists. It recently revealed that a small number of these athletes’ profiles are “under further scrutiny” [New Scientist].
Doping has gone far beyond obvious substances like steroids; in recent years athletes have been caught injecting hormones for a competitive edge, and even getting transfusions of their own blood to discreetly boost their red blood cell counts. The biological passport would combat this increasingly sophisticated arsenal of tricks. Rather than ordinary spot-testing approaches, which look for unnatural ratios between biological constituents in a single sample or for direct chemical evidence of known doping agents, the passport allows investigators to see the big picture—any deviations from the rider’s test-established norm that might result from doping, even if the specific drug or tactic remains unknown [Scientific American].