Justin Gatlin has served two doping bans and returned to competition after both.
Justin Gatlin has served two doping bans and returned to competition after both. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Dope Once, Test Positive for Life

Research suggests artificial muscle enhancers stick with cheating athletes for life. So will we see lifetime bans for first-time cheats?

Red Shannon

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In almost every case, a random drug screen is accomplished via urinalysis and is inherently invasive, embarrassing, and undignified. According to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s accepted protocol, a clear line-of-sight must be established and maintained between an observing agent (the “observer”) and the donor’s collection cup during the entire collection process. This is necessary to eliminate the possibility of a dishonest donor covertly substituting a clean sample (which has happened more than once). For clean athletes, the process is particularly humiliating, and dehydration, a common condition for athletes, compounds the indignity.

But there’s a new body of research underway that may make dopers think longer and harder about cheating than the threat of urinalysis or biological passports—in which WADA looks for changes in an athlete's blood over time, rather than for specific substances—ever did. A team of scientists at the University of Oslo, under the leadership of Dr. Kristian Gundersen, has found that in mice, the performance benefits of anabolic steroids are viable long after the steroids have been withdrawn. If the research findings can be duplicated in human testing—and Gundersen seems confident they can— the performance benefits of doping could remain latent for decades, and could be activated whenever the athlete resumes training. If that’s true, everything about sports doping enforcement could change because no amount of waiting, rehabilitation, or forgiveness  can wash those tiny, illicit protein factories from the offender’s muscles. If you dope, you’re out for life.

Despite some skepticism, Gundersen’s research is not a fly-by-night operation. In fact, its legitimacy is what gives many within sport a renewed hope that clean athletes will ultimately win the battle against doping. WADA itself had committed to assist in funding the project, though Gundersen says he recently rejected a WADA research grant because the agency “wanted the right to amend his research data,” The Herald Scotland reports. Nonetheless, WADA’s director of science Dr. Olivier Rabin has described the current results of Gundersen and others as “solid and robust scientific” evidence. 

Everything about sports doping enforcement would change because no amount of waiting, rehabilitation, or forgiveness  can wash those tiny, illicit protein factories from the offender’s muscles.

Furthermore, the Oslo study is not limited to anabolic steroids. According to Gundersen, any artificial agent introduced with the specific purpose of increasing muscle mass would come under the same scrutiny.

But research can be agonizingly slow and the jump from mice to humans is just now beginning. According to Matt McGrath of the BBC and my personal communication with Gundersen, WADA, at some time before October, 2013 gave Gundersen’s team a grant to proceed with human testing. Gundersen told me in February that he was preparing for human testing and had applied for ethical permission from an unnamed research ethics body (presumably within WADA). As to a time frame, Dr. Rabin told BBC Sport, “You never know with research but they normally [studies] run for two to three years and can be re-conducted if there are some interesting elements.” These are the latest known steps in the process.

Still, it’s hard to resist imagining the ramifications if the preliminary findings with mice can be proven in humans. It would be revolutionary. After all, how can it then be permissible for any athlete with a known artificial advantage—past or present—to engage in any sanctioned competition? The effect on enforcement, if followed to its logical conclusion should, at the least, result in lifetime bans in most cases for first-time violators. To take it further, it is even feasible that any former violator, regardless of present status, should be banned for life. 

Perhaps the current lull in Gundersen’s research presents an opportunity—especially now, with a new wave of leadership making its way into various national and international federations under the umbrella of WADA’s anti-drug influence. It would be wise and prudent for those leaders to prepare for what many think is an eventuality. If the day comes when it can be scientifically proven that banned substances have no effective expiration date, then on that very same day, current drug policies will become obsolete. The athlete who plays by the rules, and who for too long has been paying for the sins of the cheat, deserves nothing less.

Lead Photo: Wikimedia Commons