From Armstrong to Cabrera: The Murky World of Athletic Drug Testing

Doping in sports has become an ongoing novela with a number of dramatic recent episodes.

Lance Armstrong gave up his fight against allegations that he used performance-enhancing drugs during his celebrated cycling career. The cyclist has been at the center of the doping debate for years. The United States Anti-Doping Agency yesterday stripped Armstrong’s seven Tour de France titles and issued him a lifetime ban from the sport he retired from in 2011. He has never failed a drug test.

The latest development in the Armstrong storyline comes just days after Major League Baseball handed down a pair of 50-game suspensions in the span of a week. All-Star Game MVP Melky Cabrera tested positive for a banned substance, then reportedly tried to cover it up with a fake ad for a fake product on a fake website. Cabrera’s efforts made the news of Oakland pitcher Bartolo Colon’s failed test and suspension seem relatively pedestrian in comparison.

Performance-enhancing drugs also made headlines during the Olympics. A dozen athletes tested positive for banned substances, including a Belarusian gold medalists. Moreover, some of the Games stars were forced to defend themselves and their incredible performances over PED-use speculation.

Doping in sports is an unfortunate reality born out of an athlete’s desire to win at all costs and the advances in science that continue to provide athletes with new ways to go faster, become stronger and build endurance. Anti-doping experts and scientists work to keep up with the ever-evolving list of substances. However, in many cases, the issue isn’t a scientific inability to detect banned substances, but flaws in the current testing system allow athletes to find ways to get away with drug use.

here’s too many ways to beat the test. There’s going to be lots of gaps and athletes are pretty shrewd at finding these gaps and jumping in there and doing something.

— Dr. Don Catlin, a national expert on sports doping and the head of Anti-Doping Research

BALCO founder Victor Conte, who was the epicenter of the sports doping scandal of the century, recently estimated that half of MLB players use performance-enhancing drugs. Former World Doping Agency head Dick Pound said he believes only 10 percent of Olympians using banned substance are caught.

The predominantly used method of testing involves screening a urine sample. Once provided by the athlete, it is divided into A and B samples. The A sample is tested. The B sample is reserved in case additional testing or retesting is needed. One of the tests conducted as part each urine screen is a testosterone to epitestosterone ratio. The average ratio is 1:1 in most people. If the ratio is greater than 4:1, the test is considered abnormal. At that point, additional testing is conducted.

That method of testing is ineffective, according to Dr. Don Catlin, a national expert on sports doping and the head of Anti-Doping Research.

“You cannot rely unfortunately on urine testing to control everything,” Catlin said. “It’s far more complicated than that. There’s too many ways to beat the test. There’s going to be lots of gaps and athletes are pretty shrewd at finding these gaps and jumping in there and doing something.”

Some individuals have greater naturally occurring levels of testosterone. Aware of this standard, many PED users make sure that they maintain their testosterone levels within the “acceptable” 4:1 range. The real issue is determining the source of the testosterone: whether it is naturally produced by the body or a synthetic form.

One of the arguments in sports doping has long been that cheaters will always find a way to skirt the system. For every advance testers make, drug lab scientists make another. But when it comes to testing for artificial testosterone – the telltale sign of steroid use -- the science is there. It’s just not being utilized.

Catlin has been at the forefront of carbon isotope ratio testing, which can determine whether testosterone is naturally occurring. The test is used when an athlete is flagged (a sample yields a level greater than the 4:1 ratio), but often that is the only time the carbon isotope ratio testing is done.

“The science is done. It’s been published,” Catlin said of testing that would catch anyone on steroids. “It’s simply a matter of using it.”

Given testing exists that could make huge strides in cleaning up sports, why isn’t it more widely used?

“That is the question,” Catlin said emphatically.

Cost is the largest prohibitive factor, Catlin said. The carbon isotope ratio test is more expensive and more complicated than the standard current methods. However, wider use of the test – what Catlin advocates -- would eventually bring the costs down.

Making things even more complex is how much variation there is across sports in testing. Catlin has worked with the NFL, MLB, the NCAA and the IOC and said each has its own testing processes in place. Additionally, Catlin said leagues like to “play things close to the vest” with drug testing as PED users are always looking for ways to beat the system.

Then again, when it comes to steroids, the carbon isotope ratio test – which was reportedly performed on both Cabrera and Colon’s samples – has been unbeatable.

The test is not a cure all for cleaning up sorts. Testers still face the challenges of catching everything from blood doping to human growth hormone. But eliminating steroids from the equation completely would be a promising step.

Maria Burns Ortiz is a freelance sports journalist, chair of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists' Sports Task Force, and a regular contributor to Fox News Latino. Follow her on Twitter: @BurnsOrtiz

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