December 11, 2006

Since his demotion as a columnist/blogger, Michael Hiltzik has been earning his paycheck, with a series on the scientific fraud masquerading as "performance enhancing drug tests," here and here. His findings:
"Athletes are presumed guilty and denied routine access to lab data potentially relevant to their defense.

Trivial and accidental violations draw penalties similar to those for intentional use of illicit performance-enhancing substances.

Anti-doping authorities or sports federations have leaked details of cases against athletes or made public assertions of their guilt before tests were confirmed or appeals resolved.

Arbitrators, theoretically neutral judges, are bound by rules drafted and enforced by the World Anti-Doping Agency and its affiliates, including the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. They have almost no discretion to adjust penalties to fit individual circumstances.
One sad case involved Zach Lund, an athlete cheated out of a chance to compete in the last Winter Olympics:
Accused athletes find that challenging a system stacked against them can be extraordinarily costly, prompting some to abandon any effort at defense.

"It wiped out my life savings and my college savings," Zach Lund, 27, a world-class skeleton sled racer from Salt Lake City, said of his effort to clear himself of doping charges.

In 2005, a drug test found traces of finasteride, an ingredient in anti-baldness medication, in his urine. The substance had been banned only that year over concerns that it might mask the presence of steroids in urine samples. That concern, however, was based on a single study by a WADA lab that had not been peer-reviewed by a medical journal. And Lund had been taking the hair restoration prescription for five years.

"I lost all my sponsorships and my funding" from the U.S. Olympic Committee, Lund said in an interview. "I even had to get money from my family and friends. The system is broken. Right now, it's catching people who make mistakes."

An arbitration panel acknowledged that the finasteride came from Lund's medication. In upholding a one-year suspension that deprived him of a chance to compete in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, which opened on the very day of the ruling, arbitrators called him "an honest athlete" and acknowledged that the substance had no performance-enhancing effect.

They conceded that they had reached their decision "with a heavy heart": Although Lund had faithfully disclosed his medication on anti-doping forms at every event, no official had ever alerted him to the change in finasteride's status.
Moreover, the conflicts of interest abound: scientists who work for the labs in question are forbidden from giving expert testimony in favor of an athlete who challenges the tests, and the arbitrators who hear appeals have professional and pecuniary relationships with the anti-doping agencies, making it nearly impossible to find an impartial judge.

In other words, it's a racket, the exposure of which should give Mr. Hiltzik a shot at another well-deserved Pulitzer Prize.

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