Security Review: New Weapons in the Fight Against Doping

By oterod at 9:57 pm on March 13, 2009Comments Off on Security Review: New Weapons in the Fight Against Doping

The use of performance enhancing drugs and medical techniques is a serious problem in every sport, but no sport is as notorious for doping scandals as is professional cycling. While Olympic athletes, baseball players, and body builders are often caught boosting, the effect of their “cheating” on the sport, society, and economy is minimal. Marion Jones, for instance, a five-medal winner in Sydney’s 2000 summer Olympics, was retroactively indicted on drug charges and agreed to forfeit her awards. While the revelation shocked many, Jones relinquished her medals and life went on.

Professional cycling, however, is a very different story. Combining the commercialism of motorsport racing with athletic demands exceeding almost any other sport, the pressure on riders to perform is tremendous. Good performance not only makes careers, but it pleases sponsors and significantly impacts their economic standing. Sponsoring a winning Tour de France team brings in tremendous revenue for a company in Europe. Continuous defeat, on the other hand, can have devastating consequences. As such, riders must reach for the leader board not only to meet their own expectations of success and competition, but simply to remain employed.

For years, dopers and anti-doping agencies have played much the same cat-and-mouse game that security researchers play with crackers. Riders use performance enhancers; researchers create tests to detect them; riders find new drugs to use, and so on and so forth. Doping was present in cycling long ago already, but it was the 1998 expulsion of the entire Festina team from that year’s Tour de France that signaled the beginning of the “doping era.” Since that year, every “grand tour” (the class defined by the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia, and the Vuelta a España) has been plagued by expulsions, positive tests, litigations and scandals. In order to restore honor and fairness to the sport, many are crusading against the use of performance enhancing drugs. Until recently, the fervor of athlete and corporate lust for success seemed unbeatable.

According to an article by Juliet Macur in the February 28th, 2009 edition of the New York Times, the anti-doping community has developed a new methodology for detecting cheating. Rather than attempting to detect traces of illicit chemicals in riders’ bloodstreams, drug testers are attempting to develop a “biological passport” for each rider. By comparing a rider’s current blood work against earlier tests, it is now possible to detect telltale signs of substance abuse via the changes observed in that rider’s blood. Legal action has already been brought against several riders with this biological passport as evidence.


  • Riders don’t want to suffer in the ranks as a result of their competition using performance enhancing drugs
  • Sponsors and team owners don’t want the cheating of other riders to reduce the acclaim, visibility, or overall performance of their respective teams.
  • Race officials and fans want to see respectable racing, not battle-of-the-druggies. Cycling has been tainted in recent years by the proliferation of doping scandals.
  • Every non-adversary wants final rankings to be representative of rider athleticism and effort.

Potential Adversaries

  • Riders whose competitive spirit may drive them to seek “help” in order to win.
  • Riders who suffer from excessive pressure from sponsors to perform.
  • Sponsors, team owners, or team managers wishing for more team/product/brand visibility thanks to front-running riders.
  • Doctors and researchers developing new doping methods.

Potential Weaknesses:

  • Though I don’t claim to understand the biology, and while I can’t imagine that an attack this simple would be possible against the “latest and greatest” in anti-doping technology, I see one fundamental flaw in this approach. If detection of substance abuse relies on change between two test dates, the test is vulnerable to a rider who is never tested prior to adopting a doping habit. Because blood may not change once routine doping is adopted, there might not be a difference between old tests and current tests either.

Potential Defenses:

  • In addition to using these “biological passports,” parallel research should continue into discovery and detection of new doping techniques. These detection methods should be applied in addition to any delta-comparison between bloodtests.
  • If it is possible, attempt to correlate blood of dopers, as well as the blood of likely non-dopers (very poor performers, amateurs, etc.). It may be feasible to derive a model that can detect riders for whom an accurate “clean” sample is unavailable.

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