The Law Can’t Win

Devangshu Datta, a journalist based in Delhi, writes on markets and technology
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Every day, the labs find new substances to dodge existing dope tests. Can WADA do any better than playing catch-up?

Imagine a future Olympics that borrows from Formula One. Only, instead of the best auto-engineers designing lightweight high-speed vehicles, the best medical researchers bio-engineer athletes for speed, strength, endurance and what have you. Instead of internal combustion engines being powered by high-octane fuel, warm bodies are supercharged by performance-enhancing drugs.

This scenario could emerge if we accept the argument for chucking the concept of sports doping and all the paraphernalia of testing out of the window. You hear it often enough in bars and locker rooms: ‘Everyone dopes anyway. So it may as well be legalised to let everyone do it openly. That would level the playing field.’

Such a ‘drug-assisted’ Olympics would be ferociously competitive. There would be truckloads of money to support it since every pharmaceutical lab and bio-research outfit would be anxious to demonstrate skills in this arena. It would also lead to wider public benefits, since powerful new drugs would be quickly discovered and introduced to the field of general healthcare.

There is already a formidable nexus between medical researchers and competitive sports, and technology would quickly improve if doping could be done openly. However, it would take a massive change in social attitudes and legal allowances for this to happen. Sports bodies would have to legalise the use of drugs, and perhaps, even more controversially, consider the pros and cons of genetic engineering.

Legalising doping is not an illogical argument on the face of it, and it has gained strength after recent revelations of its use in cycling. Lance Armstrong was merely among the most successful of an entire battalion of dopers in that high-profile sport. Cyclists doped openly until the mid 1960s, with coke and amphetamines being drugs of choice for many. After doping was banned in 1965, the list of well-known cyclists testing positive literally runs into the hundreds.

But cycling is scarcely the only sport tainted by doping. Over the years, pretty much every competitive sport has had its share of drug scandals. Football, baseball, cricket, boxing and every track-and-field discipline has a long history of competitors failing drug tests. So much so that cynics are entitled to claim that the winners are those who have perfected the art of using drugs cleverly enough to pass the tests.

On second thoughts, however, there are two major issues with accepting the argument for legalisation. First, legalising drug assistance for sportspersons and athletes would not level the playing field. It would instead have precisely the opposite effect. It would skew things significantly in favour of competing countries and individual athletes with better access to medical research. To take one example, great runners from poor countries like Kenya, Ethiopia and Morocco, who have won so many Olympic medals among them, would be edged out by less talented athletes from richer countries with more sophisticated labs.

The other problem with legal doping is more difficult to articulate but easier to intuit. People enjoy watching sports because it has a large human component and not because it showcases inanimate technology. Usain Bolt running flat out would be hopelessly outpaced by a random old lady driving a Nano. The Mars Lander manoeuvres better than F1’s Sebastian Vettel ever could. So what?

Technology may inspire cerebral admiration, but the great thrill of sport is in watching human beings stretch their bodies to new limits.

Even in events such as F1 and rallying, where the innards of cars are obsessively dissected, much excitement would just evaporate if drivers were replaced by robots. The essence of sport is the adrenaline generated when human beings do things barely in the realm of the possible for creatures of flesh, blood and bones.

Extending the horizons of possibility through smart training, better equipment, hypnosis, meditation and so on is all fine. Ingesting substances in carefully metered cocktails to add a chemical zing isn’t.

Even if made legal, drug-assisted records would still somehow seem tainted to most people. Yes, attitudes could change, but it would require a lot of ‘social engineering’. In earlier eras, doping was legal and a widespread practice. A scary range of substances, including outright poisons like strychnine, were openly used, often causing serious harm, until various sports bodies began to proscribe drugs in a process that started about 50 years ago.

These bans came into force because, as pharmacology became more sophisticated, a strong body of opinion emerged that doping was unfair. Totalitarian states like former East Germany, Bulgaria, the USSR, Romania, etcetera, saw sporting success as a validation of their political systems. These countries would throw all their resources, including their best medical research, into developing designer-drug regimes to give contestants an edge. Rich free-market economies responded with individual initiatives that usually meant millionaires backing athletes with pharmacological assistance.

Legalisation, therefore, is not a very attractive option if we look at its history. There was a long period when doping was legal. Doping was proscribed because people realised that drug-assisted sports did not offer level playing fields. If doping were to be legalised again, we’d run through the same arguments of the 1960s and 1970s, and much of the joy would disappear.

Yet, the current situation is far from satisfactory. As of now, doping is a race between drug testers trying to catch cheats and clever labs trying to outwit them. Every year, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) updates its lists of banned substances and introduces new tests. Every day, the labs find new substances that offer workarounds that pass the existing tests. This is not a race that WADA can win.

First, pharmacology is reaching new levels of sophistication. The coding of the human genome and other bio-science breakthroughs have given us a much better understanding of how drugs interact with individual human beings. Faster computers have made it easier to design and develop drugs. Molecules can be ‘crunched’ and combined in virtual labs to quickly simulate their likely effects. Instead of fiddling around with petridishes, researchers can zero in on combinations that are most likely to be effective and tailor them in specific doses for specific individuals. This happened, for instance, with Steve Jobs. The founder of Apple had full genetic scans and survived his liver cancer for an extended period because drugs could be re-engineered for his DNA.

The next set of biological breakthroughs is likely to be genetic. Humans already scan their own genomes to discover hereditary traits. Companies like 23andme offer off-the-shelf tests. The genetic modification of plants and animals by introducing or eliminating specific genes and the cloning of entire populations (in the case of plants) is also an established process. So is surrogate parenting, where the DNA of a man is combined with that of a woman in a lab before being introduced to the womb (of another woman, if necessary) as an embryo.

The next stage may be human genetic engineering. The DNA of parents could be tweaked to eliminate bad genes such as those associated with diabetes or heart disease. Good genes could also be introduced. Labs could endow babies with abilities to carry more oxygen in their blood or develop extra fast-twitch muscle, which would assure them explosive sprinting and enhanced weightlifting capabilities as adults.

In broader terms, this may all be good. Maybe soon it will be possible to scan a patient, note his or her genetic propensities, allergies, etcetera, and customise the treatment for utmost efficacy. If future generations could be collectively armoured at a genetic level against AIDS, diabetes, malaria and other ailments by splicing the right genes, that would be fantastic. Similarly, if future generations could be made collectively stronger, faster and capable of jumping higher, it would be great.

Something like this has happened anyway. As a species, Homo sapiens has improved its physical characteristics over the past 50-60 years, thanks to better nutrition and healthcare. In countries like the US, Netherlands and Japan, the average person is now several inches taller, heavier and stronger than his or her grandparents. It has happened in parts of India and China as well, with younger people taller and more robust than their parents and grandparents. Here’s a telling statistic: Jesse Owen’s 1932 world record 100m sprint of 10.2 seconds would not even have qualified him for the 2012 Olympics final. EUGENICS IS A dirty word because of its association with racism. But genetic manipulation could indeed deliver spectacular results quite quickly in terms of advancing desirable population characteristics. It would also affect the future of sports. Such technologies develop unevenly. Advanced nations will get there faster and the less advanced would be edged out.

The WADA is silent on this subject because it has just started becoming a possibility. Creating designer babies as sporting champions involve murky ethics. ‘Non-doping’ champions are champions precisely because they are born with genetic gifts that they have amplified through training. Bolt was born with a very high proportion of fast-twitch muscle; Borg had a resting pulse rate of 38.

Is it wrong to create a champion by giving a baby a genetic gift?

Whatever the ethics, it will happen. The Romanian and East German states used to recruit five- to seven-year-olds with promising body types for sports programmes that involved training for 15 years or so. The Chinese and North Koreans also select promising toddlers and view sporting success as an important image-building exercise. Regimes like these would be tempted to start churning out designer babies. Maybe somebody has already done it in some assisted-pregnancy centre somewhere.

The WADA will soon have to take a good hard look at this genetic re-levelling of the field. It may also have to look at broader issues of individual freedom and choice. A sportsperson from a totalitarian country would have no choice when it comes to ingesting whatever s/he is given as part of the training regimen. This does not excuse folks like Armstrong, of course.

Another thing that the apex body may have to do is reconsider its attitude to recreational drugs that aren’t necessarily stimulants. The ban on marijuana, for instance, is more about its illegal status (in many places) than about its effects. Social attitudes towards the use of cannabis are turning increasingly tolerant, and if the drug is legalised in large parts of the world, the WADA ought to rethink its stance on it. Far too many sportspersons have been penalised for taking a social toke weeks before an event (the cannabis test picks up traces for weeks after a smoke). This is ridiculous, since other recreational drugs like nicotine and alcohol are allowed.

It is unclear how sports will resolve these conundrums. There are no black-and-white answers. In a sense, this is just a small-screen depiction of the larger problems society must tackle as biological research crosses new frontiers. All I can say is that attitudes to doping and its laws and testing methods are likely to see dramatic change by 2025. And I hope we still see human beings competing on a level field. We might, but the nature of that field would have changed.

A Brief History of Doping Scandals

Top-of-the-mind, of course, we have Lance Armstrong, Floyd Landis and Co. But over the years, hundreds of cyclists (even entire teams) have been indicted for doping. As a sport that demands a combination of endurance and muscular strength, cycling attracts cutting-edge research and now stands alongside baseball as a sport vitiated by doping scandals. Armstrong has been in the spotlight for his televised confession to Oprah Winfrey, though it has been alleged he lied about when he stopped doping. Another famous confession was that of Kornelia Ender, the East German swimmer who won five Olympic medals in 1976. She blew the lid off that country’s drug-assisted programmes, and her declaration was confirmed by documents made public after German unification. Yet another dramatic disclosure was Andre Agassi’s. He confessed to cocaine use in his autobiography Open.

Suspicions have sometimes persisted despite the lack of positive tests. Karnam Malleswari was accused by her estranged coach of being a drug-cheat who avoided tests. Florence Griffith-Joyner set 100m and 200m world records in 1988 that still stand, and though she never tested positive, her ex-coach and a few contemporary athletes like Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson (!) said they found it remarkable that she’d suddenly put on muscle and her voice had dropped two octaves in register. Johnson himself, of course, hit a dope-assisted 9.79 seconds in the 100m final in Seoul, 1988. Since then, five men, none of whom has ever tested positive, have beaten that mark (Bolt’s current record stands at 9.58).

Even more interesting is the case of Lasse Viren, the Finnish long-distance runner who won four golds in 1972 and 1976. Viren is said to have pioneered ‘blood doping’. This involves transfusions of the athletes’ own stored blood to increase oxygen-carrying capacity. This is difficult to catch. Viren’s method, however, has been superseded by designer drugs that increase oxygen-capacity (EPO, favoured by Armstrong, being the best known).

Entire batches of Indian athletes, especially weight-lifters, have been disqualified at various times for testing positive. Famous names include Chanu and Kunjarani Devi. The most recent scandal was the indictment of the entire women’s 4x400m relay team that won the 2010 Commonwealth gold but couldn’t compete in London. Most of those caught insisted that they just swallowed whatever they were given—yet another indictment of the shambolic Indian sports regime.

Then there are recreational casualties as well. Cocaine is a temporary stimulant. Also perhaps cannabis. Both drugs show up in tests weeks after ingestion, long after they can affect performance. Ian Botham, Diego Maradona, Martina Hingis, Agassi and sundry Pakistani cricketers have all been recreational users. Shane Warne also used a diuretic to lose weight, while Maradona used a muscle building steroid called nandrolone.