Let the “Games” Begin: A Look at Today’s Anti-Doping Measures (Part II)

Today's anti-doping campaign is often described as a cat-and-mouse game. In other words, one side takes an action, and the other side reacts. As reflected in recent headlines, today's version of the game is taking on new dimensions.

Announced recently by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the Russian track and field federation is not eligible to compete at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The International Weightlifting Federation (IW) has similarly announced that the Bulgarian weightlifting federation, uninvited to the Beijing Games in 2008, is again ineligible to compete this year. In both cases the respective international federations (IFs) have drawn the proverbial line in the sand relative to how much they will tolerate.

Which is winning, the cat or the mouse? To gain insight let's look at testing over the years.

Initial Steps
The two anti-doping locations that handle an athlete's urine sample are the collection site and the laboratory. Few of us ever see the inner workings of the lab, but the collection site is available at all national and many international meets.

In the early days of testing the collection site was not as strictly regulated as it is today. This was a favorite "watering hole" for athletes and coaches, post competition, as the room was normally outfitted with a great deal of beer.

Alcohol is a diuretic. Having a few beers may encourage a user to urinate, but that sample is also likely to then be quite diluted. Providing a dilute sample may produce a false negative. Beer, at least at US Olympic Committee (USOC) tested events, disappeared from the doping control room 30 years ago.

Some other early collection site schemes that took place include:

  • The person providing the sample was not always the person tapped for testing.
  • A small bladder of non-tainted urine was secured under an armpit, with a tube running down a warm-up suit jacket sleeve. A male, standing over a toilet, simply squeezed the contents of that bladder through the tube to the collection jar. Actual witnessing of the sample was not done, as it is today.
  • Catheters were reportedly used to place a neutral sample in the subject's bladder.
  • It was not unknown for females to dip the collection jar into the toilet water and provide that as their sample.
  • A popular procedure included voiding immediately post-competition, followed by the ingestion of a concoction of mineral water, vitamin B (for color) and vitamin C (for acidity) and other medications. Eventually a quite diluted sample that appeared legitimate was provided.
  • There often were many people in the collection area. Remember Ben Johnson (Seoul, 1988) and the “mystery man” that reportedly spiked his sample? Some interesting updates on this story have appeared in recent years.

If the sample collected is bogus, the laboratory is unlikely to discover a positive. During the mid-1980s we experienced evolving collection site procedures. Included were better identification confirmation, subjects had uniforms removed or located so as to expose any artificial means employed, temperature/pH/specific gravity were checked, colored water was added to the toilet bowl, and access to the collection site was tightened.

At the lab early detection efforts featured radioimmunoassay (RIA) analysis. This left much to be desired, especially as numerous methods of cheating continued to evolve. There were problems with both false negatives and with false positives, the latter leaving laboratories open to legal challenges.

The Fox Guards the Henhouse
Sporting organizations, be they national or international, have two goals their sport: 1) great performances in order to attract followers, television, and sponsorships, and 2) a clean image.

I was the USA Weightlifting (USAW) executive director when ABC Sports Wide World of Sports cut their annual televised coverage of our national championships. This had been a popular program over the years, along with the IWF World Championships and World Cup Gala events. While several structural changes were taking place at ABC at the time, one of the reasons given for our loss of coverage was the drug issue. Sponsors simply did not want to be associated with a sport that had a doping problem. Of course all Olympic sports have similar problems, but weightlifting tends to stand out, deservedly or otherwise.

In the early stages of doping control most national or international bodies controlled the collection and/or testing of samples. This was a cause for concern as these groups had a vested interest in maintaining the two criteria listed above. Tales of "sink testing" (collecting, but never testing) samples were not uncommon.

The IWF finally got to a point where world records were accepted only if they were set at particular events on the competition calendar. These events had to include collection and testing, but where the actual analyses took place might be in doubt. Initially the International Olympic Committee (IOC) only certified a small number of accredited laboratories. Today this number is reported to be 34 labs worldwide.

The Noose Tightens
In the early 1980s I approached the USOC about creating a serious anti-doping program. Simply stated, there was no interest. I even approached officials at the US Air Force Academy on the subject, but again, no one seemed prepared (or interested) in taking the next steps.

Soon the game changed. Most consider 1983 as a pivotal year for anti-doping testing. Three major events occurred within months of each other in which testing was brought under tight scrutiny. The first-ever World Track & Field Championships, the Pan-American Games, and the World Weightlifting Championships all signaled the beginning of a new era.

The biggest change occurred as testing was now performed by gas chromatography - mass spectrometry (think NCIS and Major Mass Spec, in Abby's lab), a greatly enhanced method of examination. While early doping rumors included such sage advice as applying dish detergent to one’s fingers, then urinating on the fingers so the detergent would foul the test, GC/MS lab techs basically said, "Sure, do so…. we’ll also identify the detergent for you."

This era also brought the first tests for excessive amounts of the male hormone, testosterone. And, as detection methods improved users came up with new ways to continue their cheating ways.

Let’s look at the mid-1980s to illustrate some of what was going on with our sport. Keep in mind that at the time there were 10 men’s weight classes, or a total of 30 world records available.

  • The 1983 World Championships were held in Moscow, and 23 world records were broken, with two suspensions reported due to excessive testosterone.
  • A total of 66 world records were set in 1983.
  • In competitions prior to the 1984 European Championships (April 27 – May 1) eight lifters tested positive and were suspended. At the Europeans the IWF announced new, stricter IWF anti-doping standards were now in place.
  • One week later, on May 8, the Soviet Union announced their boycott of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Within a few weeks 14 countries joined the Soviet boycott.
  • No world records were broken at the 1984 Olympics. Initially, four (later, five) lifters from the Games were found positive and received lifetime bans.
  • The boycotting countries competed in Varna, Bulgaria in September 1984. Here, 27 world records were broken. As was the case at the Moscow Olympic Games of 1980, no positives were reported.
  • World Weightlifting (1985/3) quotes my message on behalf of USAW, "With the recent leadership by the IWF to control the problem of drug abuse in our sport, I think we will see realistic battles with a 'normal' number of world records. The results may be somewhat lower than in recent years, but having a clean sport will be worth any temporary setback. No category will be without close competition and outstanding performances."
  • During 1985 two lifters broke a total of six world records, in two IWF events. Three lifters tested positive at the World’s.
  • The next three years, including the drug-riddled Seoul Olympics, produced 20, 19, and 28 world records, respectively.

The Seoul experience highlighted that testing was most stringent and legit at the Olympic Games. Here collection and/or testing procedures were under the auspices of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). International sports federations (IFs) or national Olympic committees (NOCs) did not have jurisdiction.

A Corner Turned?
In 1988 I attended my last IWF meeting as the USA representative to the Scientific and Research Committee. A major topic on the agenda was the modification of our bodyweight categories. The logical reason for this was the incremental inconsistency between categories (7-11% at the time). I could buy that rationale.

But it seemed obvious that another reason for changing the bodyweight categories was related to existing world records. New categories, new records, maybe, just maybe, without the use of banned substances. An interesting concept.

It took a while but in 1993 the categories were adjusted. However, records continued upward with no sign of a return to "normal" lifting results.

By January 1, 1998 these bodyweight categories were once again tweaked, and now we competed against world "standards," an extrapolated figure based on the previous category structure and existing records.

All world standards were eventually exceeded. The various efforts to date had little, if any, effect on the escalation of weightlifting world records. While today the records are not progressing at the mid-1980s rate, they keep going up and the number of positives is not getting smaller.

Detecting the illegal use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) was greatly strengthened by the establishment of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in 1999 and the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) in 2000.

What else can our sport do in order to eliminate doping? Anti-doping controls are very expensive. A large portion of any sport’s treasury is taken up with such measures. Testing generally results in few positives.

At face value the IWF anti-doping policies seem solid and proper. A June 22, 2016 IWF news release reports that some countries are to be sanctioned for continued violations. Will this curb the use of PEDs or simply send the scientists back to the lab in order to tweak their formulae?

In my opinion much stronger penalties must be handed out, particularly to member federations that are engaged with state-run doping programs. The notion of fining offending federations (how about an accounting of how many fines are actually paid?), as has been done in the recent past, does not seem effective.

Bud Charniga argues in De-Masculinization of Strength that track and field power event records have stalled, largely due to increased out-of-competition testing. A check of the top 25 shot put performances (not limited to one per competitor) confirms that 76% (19 of 25) of the best throws occurred in the 20th Century. Look at the next best 25 results and it’s almost a 50-50 split (52%-48%). Basically, about 2/3 of the best 50 shot put results occurred more than 15 years ago.

Wikipedia states that the current shot put world record has been static for 26 years. The men's discus world record goes back 30 years. Competition continues and champions are crowned, but these world records seem unlikely to fall any time soon.

Enhanced testing efforts appear to have had an effect on performance in certain disciplines. Could fans of weightlifting ever accept such a lack of progress in records?

According to IWF figures our sport seems to be experiencing an accelerated number of doping violations. This seems related to more testing. The interested reader will note that a compilation of 13 years of testing oftentimes reflects the same guilty member nations. By comparison, there seem to be a number of countries consistently absent from this list (probably also the podium).

IWF Reported Positives By Year

Sport without PEDs would seem likely to produce an international podium reflecting a diversity of winners. Is weightlifting prepared to stage close competitions, without world records, by lifters from around the globe competing equally to see who comes out best on a particular day?

In the recent past there have been rumors that weightlifting might be dropped from the Olympic program. Recently the Olympic sport of wrestling went through a similar experience, although for mostly different reasons. The IWF has had several shots across its bow. Yes, it sounds like the federation is doing everything possible, but is this really the case?

The IAAF has set a great example of simply saying "enough."

Article will be available on OLift Magazine’s website soon. For this and other Coach Newton blogs please check here www.theoliftmag.com/author/newton/.