Friday, August 22, 2008


The Olympics are on air for another two days. What an impressive two weeks it has been. Who could forget the Phelpsian gold rush or Usain "Lightning" Bolt's record sprints? At the same time, the jaded observer must be forgiven for wondering if everything went all right, if all these amazing performances came about clean and honest.

Beside a horse on drugs, and an also-run here or there who messed up a test, not much has come up, though. The Games have been mostly unblemished. But since absence of evidence does not equal evidence of absence, speculations can be shot off in any direction.

I don't want to speculate. I want to drag out an old story that came to some sort of a close a while ago without many people taking notice.

Two years ago, Floyd Landis won some wild stages in the Tour de France and lost some equally wild ones. In the end he was up on top and finished the Tour first. But he was also down at the bottom when evidence of exogenous testosterone was detected in his urine. He was recently declared a doper by the Court of Arbitration for Sport and stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title.

So far, so good. The casual reader absorbs this information and thinks not much of it. A cheat. Take him out. Keep the sport clean. If you dig deeper, however, you'll find that not everything is as black and white as it is presented to the casual reader.

Last week's Nature had an interesting commentary by a certain Donald A. Berry, a member of an Olympic doping defense team ten years ago, as the conflict-of-interest section below the article informs in fat print. Berry spends two full pages denouncing the current drug-testing practice for statistical flaws and logic inconsistencies. And he's not just some self-educated expert-in-court, he runs the Department of Biostatistics at MD Anderson, Texas.

My initial doubts fading rapidly, I read the article with great interest. Berry doesn't say Floyd Landis is innocent but he is adamant that one can't pronounce him guilty based on existing evidence and poorly substantiated and validated testing procedures. Basically, the take-home message is that a positive drug test doesn't necessarily mean a drug was involved.

And the conclusion? Drug testing and the fight against doping must be put on a firmer scientific footing. It's an uphill battle against the money and glory involved in professional sports, and it's far from clear that the good will prevail in the end, but better testing is clearly necessary if winners don't want shadows of doubt clouding their glory.

If anyone is interested in a full-text copy of the Nature article, drop me a line.

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