Canadian anti-doping agency gears up for Pan Am Games

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport running anti-doping program to try and keep the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto clean.

Canadians were given an early lesson about doping in sport when 100-metre sprinter Ben Johnson won an Olympic gold medal – and then lost it for steroid use – nearly 25 years ago.

Since then, there have been so many scandals – Lance Armstrong and this month’s revelations of positive tests for several top American and Jamaican sprinters to name a few – that the public is often left with the perception that doping is rife and only the sloppy athletes get caught.

“That’s less and less the case,” said Paul Melia, head of theCanadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, which runs Canada’s anti-doping program.

It’s difficult to quantify the problem or measure success but Melia is adamant that new anti-doping techniques have made strides in the fight against cheats.

The centre will be using those techniques in its efforts to keep Canadian athletes at the 2014 Sochi Olympics – and all athletes at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto – clean.

TO2015 has budgeted $4 million for an anti-doping program for the 7,500 athletes at the Pan Am Games. The centre spends $5 million a year testing Canadian athletes.

Every Games needs a program to deter and detect doping but the key to catching more cheats comes through testing ahead of competition, he said. That’s why Pan Am athletes from 40 countries will face the possibility of testing as soon as they land in the athletes village or the venues for training.

And it won’t just be random. Anti-doping agencies have moved beyond the lab in their efforts to create a fair and level playing field in sport. The centre now collects information about individual athletes’ training and performance to target their testing, he said.

“The random element was intended to create the feeling among athletes that they could be tested anytime, anywhere but we believe that has limited value. It’s better now to try and test the right athlete at the right time for the right drug because we know they’ve become so sophisticated.”

A coach isn’t likely to call up the centre and inform them that their athlete just came back from a remote training camp with shocking increases in strength or speed. But, another athlete might.

Melia said they’re working to change the perception of this as snitching on a fellow athlete to have it thought of as calling in a Crime Stoppers tip.

The Canadian centre does about 3,000 tests annually and less than 2 per cent turn out to be doping violations, Melia said. “But I’m not prepared to say that less than 2 per cent of athletes in Canada dope. We have to do a better job and these (new) strategies are going to help us.”

The biological passport is one of the biggest advances. It involves taking multiple blood and urine samples from an athlete over a one-year period to establish what’s normal for them. If that athlete deviates from their normal range a doping violation can be issued – even if the lab can’t pinpoint the specific banned substance, Melia said.

This means that when a new designer drug comes on the market, one the lab hasn’t developed a way to identify yet, testing can still track abnormal changes in the athlete’s blood or urine.

Right now, 60 Canadian athletes, primarily in athletics, cycling and cross-country skiing have biological passports. The centre wants to expand that to 300 or 400 Canadian athletes in the next year, which is the pool of athletes that typically presents Canada internationally in summer and winter sports.

To do it, though, they need a $500,000 budget increase from the federal government or the Canadian Olympic Committee, Melia said. It costs roughly $2,000 to create a biological passport for an athlete.

In the Armstrong era, cyclists were known to evade drug tests simply by not answering the door when the tester came around. Now, with the whereabouts program, athletes must provide guarantees about where they will be and if they miss three tests in 18 months that automatically becomes a doping violation.

American skier Lindsey Vonn, for example, was recently escorted off the red carpet at a fashion awards show to provide a sample.

Some athletes have quietly complained that constantly reporting their whereabouts is overly onerous. But, that change, along with others in the world anti-doping code, was designed to close loop-holes that some athletes had used to beat the system, Melia said.

Toronto Star - Kerry Gillespie, Sports Reporter

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