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Biological Passports: The Solution to Sports Fairness … or Another Example of how the Quest to “Catch a Criminal” is Hurting the Integrity of Sports?

The topic of “biological passports” has once again become news in recent months – when it was announced that the London Olympics would be the first summer games to use biological passports in order to deter cheating.  In addition, in July it was reported that six athletes received sanctions for an anti-doping rule on the basis of an abnormal Athlete Biological Passport profile – with the most attention being focused on Portuguese marathon runner Ornelas Helder – the first-ever athlete to be sanctioned under the IAAF Biological Passport program.

Athlete biological passports — developed and approved by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in 2009 – establish normal biological markers for individual athletes, creating an ongoing electronic record of variables in the blood of an athlete.  According to WADA, the fundamental principle of the Athlete Biological Passport is based on “the monitoring of an athlete’s biological variables over time to facilitate indirect detection of doping on a longitudinal basis, rather than on the traditional direct detection of doping.”

Simply put, biological passports provide a record of an individual athlete’s biological “norms,” developed over time from multiple sample collections.  Rather than traditional “direct” approaches to detect use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), the biological passport allows investigators to see the “big picture” — noting any deviations that might result from use of a PED.  If certain markers suddenly went askew, the deviation would be indirect evidence of PED use.  By substituting indirect testing for direct testing, the biological passport system would reduce the incentive for cheats to play a “cat and mouse” game with testers by using undetectable “designer drugs.”

This long-term tracking and reporting of an athlete’s biological markers sounds like it could be refined into an improvement over the current approach. Today’s anti-doping model treats athletes like guilty criminals in need of constant surveillance. Unscrupulous athletes who are trying to beat the system are often succeeding – most authorities agree that smart cheaters can pass the tests.  To convince the public that the system isn’t a failure, the anti-dopers are now selectively targeting certain high-profile athletes. But the pursuit of Lance Armstrong – the greatest hero of the cycling world and a man who reportedly passed over 500 doping tests – is viewed by many not as a triumph for either cycling or ant-doping … but as a travesty.  Rather than proving the system works, the Armstrong witch hunt undermined public confidence in every way.  Armstrong’s ability to pass 500 drug tests shows the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) testing program stinks; targeting Armstrong by cutting deals with other cyclists who themselves were caught in doping scandals smells funny to the fans; and bringing attention to the fact that PED use in cycling was rampant doesn’t send an uplifting message to the young.

If the biological passport system could get away from the cat and mouse approach it would do enormous good for the integrity of sports.  Rather than focusing on blame for a biological passport aberration, why not focus simply on health?  An athlete whose biological markers deviate from normal would be banned for his or her own health until they returned to normal.  Simple as that!  Sure, there would be a suspicion of PED use, but the focus would be on health preservation/restoration rather than fault.

But the current tone of the conversation regarding biological passports is the same as the traditional anti-doping language. The current concept of biological passports keeps the emphasis on “catching criminals” – rather than on health. Yes, we want to discourage athletes from cheating.  Yes, we want to protect the health of the athletes  But no, we don’t want to encourage a system that creates a “blame game” type of mentality … and which, in the process of trying to “catch a criminal” and defeat cheating also defeats the integrity of the game.

As the concept of biological passports continues to develop, we can only hope that it becomes a more effective way to deal with the issue of cheating in sports than the system currently in place.  More importantly, we can only hope that with this new concept will come a new way of thinking – and talking — about this issue … and that we can put an end to the “blame game” in sports … focusing instead on the game itself.

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