Friday, January 18, 2013
Silver lining of Lance: Better testing exists
By Henry Abbott
Whether you're a cycling fan or not, there was plenty to be upset about in the first installment Lance Armstrong's conversation with Oprah Winfrey.
But, especially for fans of the major North American sports, perhaps also some good news:
Oprah: Were you afraid of getting caught?
Armstrong: No. Drug testing has changed. It's evolved. In the old days they tested at the races. They didn't come to your house. They didn't come to your training camps. They tested you at the race. That's shifted a lot. Now the emphasis of the testing, which is right, is out-of-competition testing.
Oprah: Would you take several days before? You take it and give yourself enough time for it to move through your system?
Armstrong: Yeah, it's a question of scheduling. I know that sounds weird, but two things changed this. The shift to out-of-competition testing and the biological passport. And it really worked. I'm no fan of UCI, but they implemented the bio passport.
Here Armstrong is echoing what scientists, anti-doping authorities, lawmakers and other confessed drug cheats have been saying for years: There are better ways to test.
The lament has been, essentially, that the testers are doomed to an endless game of catch-up. To some degree, that may always be true.
But that's not to say there's no hope. There have been innovations that impressed even Armstrong, who has been called one of the most sophisticated drug cheats in sport history. North American pro sports could do better testing.
The biological passport, for instance, which Armstrong lauded, tracks an athlete's blood values over time, and raises red flags for further testing when things get strange.
These ideas and technologies have been around for years. They're using them in cycling, and if the riders are still cheating, they're not doing a very good job of it: The same mountain stages Armstrong and others flew up a decade ago are now taking riders much longer to ascend. This testing arrived, a flood of riders have been caught, retired or confessed, and the sport has slowed down. Score one for the best available drug testing.
The question in the major North American sports is not is there anything we can do to prevent cheating. It's: Why aren't we doing all we can?
Baseball only just started down the path of biological passports. But neither the NFL nor the NBA even collect blood regularly, let alone the year-round, near-constant sampling that exposes little changes here and there. The NBA only recently added two out-of-season urine tests.
When Armstrong remembers the old days when simply "scheduling" could prevent you from failing a test ... that's not far off what has been happening in American pro sports. The question is how quickly the testing that Armstrong says works best will be implemented in the leagues that lead the world in many things, but not this.