Systematic flaws in doping prevention

International team of researchers examined the extent of doping among world-class elite athletes / Sports physician Perikles Simon questions the monitoring and the promotional systems in elite sports

31 August 2017

The use of performance-enhancing drugs by top athletes is surprisingly common and generally remains undiscovered despite the availability of sophisticated testing methods. An international team of scientists including Professor Perikles Simon of the Sports Medicine division at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) was able to ascertain realistic figures back in 2011 now published in the academic journal Sports Medicine.  Using indirect, highly anonymous survey procedures, the team was able to more reliably estimate the number of unreported cases within an acceptable range of methodological variability. According to the resultant conservative estimates, adjusted downwards if anything, 30 to 45 percent of world-class athletes questioned at two sporting events had purposely used banned doping substances in the previous year. "This is the first time that a systematic investigation has revealed actual proof of the use of prohibited substances in high-level sports to an extent that is troubling," said Simon. The study was undertaken in collaboration with the University of Tübingen and McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, in the US. "If we take these findings seriously, both the complete doping control system and the promotional schemes used in the world of elite sports will need to be fundamentally re-examined."

Use of illegal performance-enhancing substances undermines the concept of the level playing field in sports and represents a serious risk to the health of athletes. To prevent doping in elite sports, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) monitors the testing of several hundred thousand blood and urine samples every year, which reveal positive results in one to two percent of cases. However, when the biological variables of the so-called Athlete Biological Passport (ABP), which indirectly reveal the effects of doping, are measured, the proportion is considerably higher, in the range of 14 percent. "Many state-of-the-art doping practices still remain undiscovered, which is why it is safe to assume that the actual number of athletes using drugs is much higher,” concluded Simon.

In addition to uncovering these alarmingly high doping rates, the survey has exposed even more wide-ranging issues. "Have people simply failed to recognize the extent of doping or is it that they would rather turn a blind eye to the problem?" asks Simon. He thus brings up the question whether, with every new doping scandal, it is justifiable to impose ever harsher penalties on athletes and restrict further their personal rights by means of the imposition of more controls—or, alternatively, whether this decades-old concept is rather designed to conceal a sports milieu rife with corruption and venality and its ties to politics and big business now need to be disclosed.

However, instead of providing clarification and cooperation, the responsible parties are taking up defensive positions following the publication of the survey findings. In this connection, Simon reported that the Executive Board of the National Anti Doping Agency of Germany (NADA) has not yet approached him for any form of collaboration, as NADA stated. Simon was also astounded by the statement given by the head of the French Anti-Doping Agency to the media in which he asserted that there has been a significant decline in the use of banned substances since the survey in 2011 and that more than 100 athletes had been caught out thanks to the use of the ABP system. "There is no valid data to back up this claim. In the period from 2012 to 2015, for which reliable data has already been published, only a handful of athletes were found to be guilty of the use of illegal drugs," insists Simon.

Doping controls and doping prevention in Germany also need to be improved

The extremely high doping rates among athletes performing at international levels disclosed in the publication also evidence, according to Simon, a fundamental problem that is related to the way top-level sport is promoted. "As far back as 2012 and presumably in response to the figures we had published, the World Anti-Doping Agency set up an internal committee that was tasked with finding out why the fight against doping was so ineffective. The result was a remarkable report in which it was alleged that the top testing authorities of global testing agencies and the control system itself had only very little interest in actually identifying those using illegal substances and preventing doping."

As a result of this report, Simon believes those responsible should have been motivated to introduce fundamental reforms of the anti-doping system. A control structure characterized by a division of authority and the independence of agencies would, he claims, provide a better means of getting to grips with the clearly apparent human and political factors involved. "If you look beyond Russia and Jamaica and also consider the systems employed in Germany to suppress doping, you will soon realize we, too, have a major improvement potential when it comes to providing greater autonomy to our control agencies and also with regard to our activities designed to prevent doping," he concludes. Simon recommends taking a more critical look at the way the resources of the German Federal Ministry of the Interior (BMI) dedicated to the promotion of high-level sport are being employed because, after all, its considerable amounts of tax payers’ money that go into the medal-chasing promotion of sports. The fact that the BMI is also responsible for NADA and thus the measures used to fight and prevent doping would appear to represent a conflict of interest. The doping control and prevention systems should not be in one and the same hands and their underlying structures should also be entirely independent of any high-performance sports promotional programs.