Loophole Doping -- The Future is Boring
Science might cynically be described as a process for draining the magic out of the world. With time, miracles of the flesh are replaced by the laws and theorems of biology. As we delve into the nitty gritty of the human body, bike racing has become correspondingly systematic. Winning races is in some ways a plumbing project, tinkering with tubes for air and blood. Training by superstition and feel gave way to heart rate monitors, which in turn lost out to power meters. Doping is the same---careful science has edged out earlier, more slapdash methods. Cheating just ain’t what it used to be, and the future of successful doping promises to be one of litigation and engineered boredom.
In the second edition of the Tour de France, in 1904, 105 cyclists set out from the town of Montgeron for the first of six massive stages. There was rampant cheating from the very start. Hippolyte Auconturier, one of the favorites for the overall win, flatted and crashed numerous times due to sabotage. He arrived at the finish line covered in blood and understandably furious, although he still managed to get fined for having an illegal pacer. Two of the other favorites, Maurice Garin and Lucien Porter, rode away from the group only to have a car run them off the road, where four masked men jumped out and attacked them. Pierre Chevalier, who finished third on the stage, was fined for catching a pleasant 45-minute ride in his manager’s car.
Some of the riders even mobilized their fans into makeshift hooligan armies. During the third stage, Antoine Faure had a slight lead on the pack as the race passed through his hometown. A crowd of 200 supporters mobbed the road, trying to waylay everyone else as Faure sped up the road. One unfortunate rider, Giovanni Gerbi, was bludgeoned unconscious in the melee and woke up to several broken fingers, forcing him to ride on with just one hand on the handlebar. In the end, nine riders were disqualified from the Tour for hopping on trains. The overall winner, Henri Carnet, had received a warning on stage four for also getting a ride in a car. The 1988 Tour has been called the greatest ever, but for sheer narrative power, 1904 wasn’t bad.
As riders became more inventive, the rulebook grew. Technology infiltrated every aspect of racing, escalating the war between cheaters and officials. Hard to hop a train when there’s a TV camera in your face; hard to sanction riders when the pills are more advanced than the tests. Blatant cheating still happened, of course, but it was becoming increasingly rare. In 1960, the Frenchman Roger Riviére, the then-Hour Record holder, lost control of his bike on a steep descent in the Tour. He crashed into low stone wall, catapulted over it and down a ravine, shattering two vertebrae and leaving him paralyzed. He had taken Palfium, an opiod more potent than morphine, and was unable to move his hands enough to pull the brake levers. By and large, though, painkillers and amphetamines were race-winners, not race-enders.
And so the story grew more complex. Sending some goons to attack your rivals is a simple, easily-understood tale, but explaining the intricacies of hematocrit levels or the effect of amphetamines on core temperature regulation is a challenge. By the time EPO came roaring through the peloton in the 1990s, spurring red blood cell production and record speeds, you practically needed a biology textbook to follow the sport. Maurice Garin and the other early Tour racers gave us simple cheats; microdosing, jiffy bags, and TUEs have twisted and deepened the doping chronicles.
The biological passport is case in point. Just understanding what it is can be challenge, much less how it’s used to detect cheating. As The Inrng details, “a variety of measures are taken when an athlete is tested and these are all logged into a database and over time a ‘longitudinal profile’ is established. Unlike the binary toxicology testing, where a lab looks for banned substances and it’s positive or negative, the passport looks at changes in levels. Software uses logic and probability algorithms to spot anomalies.” If the software flags a value, one doctor assesses it. If they believe there’s something abnormal happening, two other doctors are called in to review it. Then, if all three agree, then a dossier of the athlete’s age, gender, sport, and samples is compiled and the UCI is notified. The UCI in turn tells the riders it has a possible doping case, and presents that rider with the dossier. Finally, the UCI will decide whether to sanction the rider or not, and with that comes the possibility of litigation. We’re a far cry from masked goons in a car.
And it may not be the magic bullet we’ve hoped for. Although the recent Operation Aderlass shows that athletes can be still be caught mid-infusion, none of them were detected by the bio passport. The Spanish rider Ibai Salas had his four-year ban overturned after the Administrative Court of Sport reviewed his bio passport and concluded there hadn’t been any adverse values. He was originally sanctioned by the Spanish anti-doping authority, AEPSAD, who obviously did believe his passport showed abnormalities. “Cheating” is now, in many cases, a product of consensus, not a positive or negative result. If the right doctors disagree with each other, viola, you didn’t dope. Testing positive is passé.
This is the future: loophole doping. The playbook goes: 1) use a performance-enhancing substance. 2) If and when an abnormal value crops up, deploy the lawyers. 3) Flood the media with various experts to “explain” TUEs, individual variances, studies showing yada yada…
In loophole doping, boredom is a powerful ally. Public pressure can help effect change in sport, and there’s much less public pressure when no one’s psyched to study salbutamol recycling processes in elite endurance athletes. The cycling community can rally against blatant offences like testosterone injections and hidden motors, but it’s much harder to get riled up about a bureaucratic process like the biological passport panel’s procedure. This makes it easier to live inside the loopholes, protected by a thick cloud of dullness.
Chris Froome’s salbutamol saga, from the 2017 Vuelta to the 2018 Giro, is textbook loophole doping (sorry for rehashing the story but the long-suffering sigh it induces is kinda the point). After a blood test “delivered an adverse analytical finding,” the UCI opened an anti-doping investigation. There was too much salbutamol in his blood, seemingly delivered by his inhaler. He’s always used an inhaler and the necessary TUEs, so no problem, except the levels were apparently an order of magnitude higher than they should’ve been, hinting at more nefarious methods for steroid delivery. But some studies have shown not everyone recycles salbutamol the same, so maybe it’s possible Froome’s body held onto excessive amounts for whatever reason (dehydration? Interactions with caffeine? Full moon?), except again if he’s always had the inhaler why the adverse finding on the same day he was rampaging up climbs and generally tearing legs off---seems convenient. But wait, then the test itself was called into question and...snooze. Without the drama of a police bust or a few solid positive A and B samples, Froome’s guilt or innocence was decided in the courtroom, regardless of public opinion (or certain assumptions made at the beginning of this paragraph). He remains, technically, the greatest clean stage racer of his generation.
As we learned more about exercise science, we radically expanded the ambiguity inherent in the proverbial level playing field. The line between legal and not has gotten fuzzy to the point of irresolution. The rules we use to determine fair play can be contradictory. High-altitude camps are legal, EPO’s not. Painkillers can’t be used in competition, but Tramadol persisted until last year, and even remains okay by WADA. And the teams and riders with the best access to lawyers are in the best position to exploit contradictions and ambiguities. The more complicated the narrative, the duller the case, and the harder it becomes to decide whether a rider has cheated. Truth is now a matter of arbitration.