A Look Back at Doping

The Tour de France rolled on to its final destination at the Champs Élysées in Paris on Sunday, to wind up what for this weblog has frankly been a most disappointing spectacle. Why? Because we have something against Alberto Contador and would rather have seen Lance Armstrong win the thing for the eighth time? Hardly; anyone who has been following coverage of the Tour de France on this weblog knows perfectly well that I do so through one prism only: doping. And – glory be! – it does seem that there was not one kerfluffle involving doping on this year’s Tour. What can that mean?

Fortunately, this is a question that the Dutch Christian newspaper Nederlands Dagblad ((Motto: Don’t try to access us on the Sabbath, we shut the site down”) now addresses: Who knows whether the Tour was clean in 2009. And indeed, we can’t know yet whether that absence of doping incidents this year actually meant that no one was cheating. (“No one was cheating”: that’s a concept rather difficult to wrap your mind around in any case, no?) We can’t know now, but we can get a better idea with the passage of time, because that is what in fact has been the big recent advance in anti-doping techniques according to this article: after-the-fact (or retrospective) analysis. Since 1 January of this year the procedures for conducting that have been set down in an iron-clad legal and procedural framework.

Bike-race contestants all submit urine samples now, as before, but in this new system they are frozen and thus made available for chemical analysis for the next eight years. Herman Ram, director of the World Anti-Doping Agency, is even quoted here as cautiously venturing the opinion that perhaps the 2009 Tour de France was clean because of this advance: “I give it a more than reasonable chance that, for the first time since maybe the beginning of the Tour [i.e. since the first Tour de France in 1903!] we have seen a clean edition. I base this on the deterring effect that retrospective analysis has, a strong weapon.” In fact, a retrospective test is scheduled for the fall to, in effect, check the probity of last year’s Tour de France, as urine samples from fifteen of the top racers there will be checked, especially for the presence of CERA, a new brand of blood-doping chemical that first came to authorities’ attention back in 2008 and was detected then in a couple of (Italian) contestants – presumably as the anti-doping authorities were scrambling in an ad hoc fashion to react to it.

This CERA example points to a curious dilemma that those authorities face. Naturally, there will never be an end to to the medical innovations unscrupulous riders, or rather the medical experts behind them, come up with to gain a race-advantage and which at least initially will be undetectable with then-current technology. That’s why it’s so valuable to have both the technical and legal/regulatory basis in place to test urine samples for up to eight years. But that portion of the sample that you test, you destroy, so eventually you can exhaust a rider’s sample when, if you had just held on to some, you could later test again for some new blood-doping innovation you didn’t know about before.

So do you just wait to test when that eight-year period is almost up? For that matter, why do the anti-doping authorities want to test (and therefore use up some of the urine samples of) those fifteen riders from last year’s Tour? The answer should be obvious: it’s just too lame to wait too late to announce bad news. “Uh, we’re sorry, but we now know that racer XXX cheated back in the Tour de France eight years ago and we’re revoking his title and taking back his winnings,” that after the miscreant in question has had those eight years to bask both in glory and a considerably-enhanced financial endowment.

Competitive bicycle-racing: Don’t fool yourself that it’s about riding a bike fast. It’s all about chemistry!

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