Passport to Cleanland

Friday, March 08, 2013 /by

When the top players in tennis speak with a united voice, people tend to listen. Thus, the “biological passport” program that was merely bandied about as a potential tactic for ensuring—and demonstrating—that tennis is, or is determined to be, free from doping has quickly gone from being a good idea to an official policy.

The announcement was made on Wednesday by the International Tennis Federation, after the Tennis Anti-Doping Programme Working Group (TADP), which consists of representatives of the ITF, ATP, WTA, and Grand Slam tournaments, expressed unified support for the program. It goes into effect “from 2013,” which means more or less immediately. And the proactive decision comes just weeks after top players, including the Big Four (Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray, and Rafael Nadal) all voiced their concerns about the spectre of doping in the wake of the Lance Armstrong scandal, and expressed strong support for a more rigorous anti-doping regimen in tennis.

The TADP will greatly increase the number of blood tests administered in tennis every year, but it takes a different approach to the doping quandary than the heretofore standard technique of monitoring for the presence of banned performance-enhancing substances in the blood or urine of players.

Most parties agree that the ITF and the World Anti-Doping Agency had administered too few blood tests in recent times. Just 131 blood tests—only 21 of them administered out-of-competition—were done in 2011, according to the Associated Press, along with 2,019 urine tests. That in spite of the fact that blood tests are a more effective means of detecting the presence of banned substances like human growth hormones, EPO, and transfusions.

Hence, the urgency behind the embrace of the biological passport.

For those of you who haven’t followed these developments closely, the biological passport concept has won many advocates in recent years. I first learned of it years ago, when I read a still-illuminating profile of visionary MD Don Catlin in Outside magazine.

Catlin was instrumental in advancing the concept of the biological passport. But at the time, it seemed unlikely that athletes would submit to something as intrusive as routine, repetitive blood testing in order to build a complex bio-profile. This bio-profile, or “passport,” would create a regularly replenished baseline for each athlete, and any significant spike in, or departure from, the established markers would send up red flags. The whole thing seemed Orwellian, impractical, and perhaps even unfair—it would be too much like suggesting the athletes are guilty until proven innocent.

But over the years, the idea of the athletic bio-passport won over many skeptics. Greater confidence in the scientific integrity of the passport concept and growing dissatisfaction with the cops-and-robbers nature of the policing effort has led more and more administrators—and athletes—to support this reversal of the doping control rules. Today, many sports, including cycling, swimming, and track and field, have adopted the biological passport, and violators have been caught and punished. (For an extensive Q&A on the subject, check out this link to the Labratoire Suisse D’analyse Du Dopage, or LAD, the outfit that processes biological passports).

Spokespersons for the biological passport approach stress that the most effective approach still consists of frequent testing, albeit not with the familiar “gotcha” mentality and strategies that have been in place up to now. It was Federer who, late last year, said: “I feel I am being tested less now than six or seven years ago. . . whatever the number (of tests) it is, I don’t think it’s enough.”

The regimen for the biological passport differs substantially from the approach of the previous, random testing methodology. As the LAD notes in the aforementioned Q&A: “For the ABP (Athlete Biological Passport), it is much preferable to have 4-5 tests performed every year from a well-thought, intelligent test distribution plan, than more results from tests scheduled randomly that will waste resources and dilute relevant information.”

Translation for the pros: No more strangers showing up at your door at 7 a.m. to demand that you disappear into the toilet and produce a vial of urine that, as has been noted, isn’t a very reliable indicator of sophisticated doping anyway. And, presumably, no more having to report your every change of location to the tennis authorities—a demand that always did seem chilling and truly onerous. A number of players, including Xavier Malisse and Yanina Wickmayer, were charged for failing to report their whereabouts—an understandable oversight that unfortunately led to suspicions that they were trying to evade doping control officers.

So this looks like a win-win for tennis. And it looks like we’ve come full circle on the biological passport issue. Where critics once said it was too intrusive, it now seems a more orderly approach that shows greater respect for a player’s right to privacy. Where it was once perceived as an unnecessary demand placed upon the large number of clean athletes, it now sounds like a nice way for those fair-minded jocks to demonstrate that they’re clean in a quiet and undeniable way. Where it once seemed like an unwieldy and ponderous exercise, it now looks like a smooth system that, once put in place in any sport, becomes self-sustaining.

The biggest challenge I see for the anti-doping folks is determining exactly who needs to create a biological passport. If it were just the Top 10 players, the program could be rolled out easily. But there are probably close to 500 players in tennis who play in WTA and ATP feeder and main events. Must every one of them create a passport, and update it that recommended four or five times a year?

That would certainly create some logistical problems for the tours, and even more for those player-heavy Grand Slam events. There are a lot of men and women playing tennis out there, hoping to get a shot at the big time and even seeing those hopes rewarded, if only for a few weeks or months. But it seems that if you’re going to have an athlete bio-passport program, everyone ought to be a part of it. Even if you commit to testing just the 128 players who appear in a Grand Slam draw four times a year, you’ve already undertaken to run 512 blood tests—roughly four times the number run in 2011. And that’s assuming that the same 128 players are in all four majors, which is never the case.

But, as Murray declared in an interview with the Daily Mail, “Whoever is putting the money in, even if it means taking some of the money off the players’ earnings, that’s what we have to do.”

And it seems that when Murray—and his cohorts—talk, people listen.

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