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What the Biological Passport Means for Running

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Last Thursday, the IAAF, track and field's international governing body, announced a plan to drug test every single athlete at the world championships in Daegu, South Korea later this month. It will be the first comprehensive testing ever performed at a world or Olympic final in track and field, and, although the IAAF will likely catch few athletes using drugs, it represents perhaps the greatest anti-doping success for the sport in years. Testing every athlete, and collecting baseline blood samples from every athlete, means that track and field is getting the biological passport.

The passport program, rather than trying to trap athletes with drugs in their system, instead looks for biological markers that indicate drug use—instead of screening for EPO, which passes through the body in days, it looks for variances in blood chemistry associated with blood-boosting agents or blood doping. A too-high percentage of reticulocytes in the blood, for example, strongly suggests EPO use, and a too-low percentage suggests blood doping. Abnormal results in either direction can get an athlete banned. The program came to cycling in 2008 and was nominally unveiled in track and field last December. But the plan to test everyone at the world championships—and establish individual baseline parameters for nearly all of the sport’s top athletes—suggests that the passport is finally going into wide effect.

When the World Anit-Doping Agency first announced the passport program, in 2008, the prevailing attitude among anti-doping advocates was that cheating athletes would always find new drugs or new ways to mask known drugs. But for the first time, thanks to the passport, it appears that the testers may actually have gained the upper hand.

Recent analysis by physiologists Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas suggests that the biological passport has had a powerful deterrent effect on cheaters in cycling, the dirtiest of all endurance sports. Late last month, Tucker and Dugas looked at the number of abnormal blood samples submitted by professional cyclists, then correlated the results with a timeline of anti-doping innovations. The introduction of the biological passport, they found, has dramatically lowered the number of abnormal samples in pro cycling. The correlation hints that cycling is substantially cleaner in 2011 than at any other time since perhaps the early 1990s. 

Of course, the finding could also mean that cyclists are doping with a drug that the passport doesn’t measure, or, as Floyd Landis claimed last year, that riders are taking drugs in small, undetectable doses. But Tucker and Dugas have noted elsewhere that the professional peloton is actually slowing down. The passport has caught half a dozen riders outright, but the implication is that cyclists are genuinely worried and therefore doping less, which was the point of drug testing in the first place. 

The things that have kept distance running from commercial success—poor organization and hard-to-market athletes—have likely shielded the sport from a pervasive culture of drug use, even if isolated examples crop up here and there. But it will be fascinating to see whether the biological passport affects running as it has affected cycling. In particular, men’s long-distance road running, which has seen an explosion in fast times since 2008, may present an excellent test case. If there is a drug problem, and if running behaves like cycling, marathon and half-marathon times may slow down. But if the surge in top performances is linked to a change in attitude, as some have argued persuasively, we may be treated to more great performances—and more trustworthy ones.

—Peter Vigneron
@petervigneron



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