Officials downplay doping test flaw

Originally Published: March 13, 2009
By Shaun Assael | ESPN The Magazine

Anti-doping officials are downplaying the results of a study released this week that found a widely used Olympic drug test is flawed because it does not account for a gene variation that helps hide testosterone.

In the study, released Wednesday, scientists from the Swiss Laboratory for Doping Analyses examined 171 male soccer players to see if they had the variant, known as UGT2B17, which controls testosterone absorption in urine. Steroids were deliberately added to subjects' urine samples.

The variant is important because it can skew an anti-doping test that examines the ratio of testosterone to epi-testosterone (t/e) in urine samples.

Currently, a 4:1 ratio qualifies an athlete for a violation in World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) standards. But the soccer players with the gene tended to have less of their testosterone absorbed in the urine.

Asian men, in particular, had very low levels.

As a result, the study argued that the commonly used t/e test should simply be discarded as "evidence of testosterone misuse in international sports."

The Swiss scientists recruited soccer players from Argentina, Italy, Japan, South Africa, Switzerland, and Uganda for the study. When their genes were decoded, it was found that the different ethnic groups had the gene in different amounts.

It was present in 7 percent of Hispanics, 10 percent of whites, 22 percent of Africans, and 81 percent of Asians.

Howard Jacobs, the attorney who represented cyclist Floyd Landis, said the finding has no effect on the cyclist's case because it was just one piece of evidence against him. (Landis, subsequently stripped of the Tour de France title he won in 2006, registered 11:1 on his t/e test.)

But Jacobs said the study is notable for what it says about anti-doping officials.

"It once again shows that their repeated claims that their tests are infallible and exhaustively reviewed prior to use are simply not true," the attorney said.

Anti-doping officials, meanwhile, are downplaying the importance of the study.

"What¹s new is that they found the gene," said Travis Tygart, chief executive of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. "But this phenomenon has been fully discussed for years. I was at a conference in 2003 when scientists from Tokyo were talking about it."

A spokesman for WADA also said the study has little current relevance because the agency has moved beyond the t/e test to more accurate barometers.

"WADA is well aware of this phenomenon," spokesman Frederick Donze said. "We have been working for several years with the WADA-accredited laboratories to ensure that [they are using tests] not affected by genetic factors."

Donze pointed to carbon isotope tests, which measure the ratio of carbon 13 to carbon 12. That test was a key piece of evidence against Landis, who finished serving his two-year ban in January.

The Swiss lab has been working closely with cycling's world governing body, UCI, on a "biological passport" program that uses blood tests to set bio-markers that can be used as reference points throughout a season. The study's author, Christophe Saudan, suggested that program should be expanded.

Donze said WADA is currently finalizing an "Athlete Passport Operating Manual."

Shaun Assael, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, writes extensively about doping in sports in his book, "Steroid Nation," available here. Information from ESPN.com news services also was used in this report.

• Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine
• Author of "Wide Open: Days and Nights on the NASCAR Tour"; the New York Times best-selling "Sex, Lies and Headlocks"; and "Steroid Nation"