World Anti-Doping Agency chairman disagrees with his own agency’s rules

Professional sports do indeed have a problem with performance-enhancing drugs. Athletes are randomly tested, even off-season, more than ever before. Scientists are hard at work improving detection technologies for banned drugs. The war on doping has been very much in the media eye in recent years, most noticeably involving baseball mega-hitters and bicycling champions.

The self-contradictory behavior of WADA, and the UCI (International Cycling Union), specifically their tendency to violate their own rules, prematurely announce test results and publicly conclude that an athlete is a cheat is extremely troubling. Now, the AP and the BBC are reporting that WADA chairman Dick Pound has taken a bizarre stance, contradicting WADA regulations, that it is “disturbing” an athlete was cleared of doping allegations because her A and B samples didn’t both reveal the presence of EPO.

Mr. Pound is speaking of Marion Jones’ case. Jones was just cleared of doping allegations, because there was no consensus between her two samples. And like Floyd Landis, Jones’ positive A test was publicly announced before confirmation with a B test, thus violating her privacy, sullying her name, and likely costing her considerable income in endorsement deals. Coincidentally, WADA’s routine and unethical pre-announcement of Jones’ guilt has left just a bit of well-deserved egg on WADA’s collective face. Perhaps less coincidentally, this B sample backup system is exactly what Dick Pound is against.

Read more to see why I think Dick Pound is frighteningly misguided.

I worked in the medical field, developing cancer tests for 13 years. There are four kinds of test results:

  • Negative (drugs (or cancer, etc.) were not detected)
  • Positive (drugs were detected)
  • False Negative (drugs were not detected, but were proved to be present by some other means)
  • False Positive (drugs were detected, but were not actually present)

This can be confusing for a few reasons. First, “Negative” sounds bad, like a negative experience, so people new to the terminology sometimes flip the meanings of Negative and Positive. Second, no test is ever perfect, period. Machine and human alike have margins of error, and assigning any of the four labels to a test is not an absolute science. Test results can be thought of as a number line, with the Positive/Negative boundary somewhat arbitrarily placed on the continuum. Speaking from my own experience, it was vital to avoid False Negative cancer tests, since this could give a doctor and patient an incorrect, possibly life-threatening impression that no cancer is present. So, it makes sense in this case to increase the test’s sensitivity while sacrificing some specificity, to minimize False Negatives, even at the expense of increased False Positives. In other words, it is preferable to risk an erroneous finding of cancer, which can be overturned on a subsequent follow-up test, than it is to risk an erroneous finding of no cancer, which will not be verified or challenged until the next regularly-scheduled test.

Perhaps this is too much detail to discuss sports doping, but the important message is, all tests, especially biological tests (since everyone’s biology is slightly different) have unavoidable errors. Tests can be tuned to err on the side of caution (in cancer’s case, at the expense of increased False Positives), but that is entirely in the hands of the designers. There is, unfortunately, no absolute, yes-or-no drug test, and there is often a built-in bias to a test, depending on the intent of the designers.

With this in mind, relatively cooler heads prevailed when designing the current drug test protocol for doping. (This is not the test itself, but rather how it is administered and interpreted.) Considering that a False Positive result can end a career, cost millions in lost income, and even ruin a life, anti-doping agencies agreed on a two-sample process, A and B, which are supplied by an athlete when he or she is tested, and supposedly are securely handled (to avoid tampering, for instance) and accounted for from that point forward.

Why two samples? Since we know that no test is perfect, and will have (easily measurable) False Positive and False Negative rates, two samples give an extra degree of confidence that the result is correct. Assuming, in Marion Jones’ case, that the EPO test had a 1% False Positive rate, Marion’s positive A sample could have been that one-in-one hundred mistake. Those are hardly impossible odds. However, by retaining and testing a B sample, even with a theoretical 1% False Positive rate, the effective False Positive rate becomes 1% of 1%, or 1 in 10,000. Again, this is based on a hypothetical EPO test with a False Positive rate of 1%, but the math and the increased integrity of the test work the same regardless of the actual numbers.

Another possible reason for a two-sample protocol, and certainly an issue that should be mentioned in media reports, is that is impossible to prove a negative. When Tyler Hamilton tested positive for blood doping nearly two years ago, what possible test could disprove the positive result, whether it was a true Positive or a False Positive? In other words, not only are the world’s anti-doping agencies violating patient confidentiality to pre-judge athletes with positive A tests, if the B test is also positive, the only recourse is the courtroom.

Personally, I think there should be a three sample protocol. The athlete should retain one for safe-keeping, all three should be sealed against tampering both before and after the sample collection, and if a positive is found, the athlete has the opportunity to submit their sample to another, certified laboratory. With today’s technology it is possible to integrate into the specimen cup lids chemical sensors that will indicate if a sample has been inappropriately heated or frozen. I think a multi-national, impartial third party should monitor all movement, handling, testing and storage of all samples, including the destruction of the samples after they are no longer needed.

What about False Negatives? you might ask. This is a fair question, with more of a philosophical answer. In the USA, we say we’d rather let a criminal go free than imprison an innocent person. It is certainly possible that the A or B sample could give a False Negative result, and let a cheater get away with cheating… once. The odds of that happening again, as above, are multiplied, and the cheater will be caught if they continue to cheat. It doesn’t pay to cheat.

Let’s return to today’s news report, in which WADA’s Dick Pound told the BBC regarding Marion Jones’ negative B result, “We are going to see how that happened, learn from it, and try to make sure it doesn’t happen in the future. The worry we have is that someone is misinterpreting things or doing things wrong.”

As I have explained, conflicting results should happen every so often. It means your testing protocol is catching False Positives, which is exactly what it was designed to do! Dick Pound clearly doesn’t understand this, or the imperfect nature of drug testing, which is a very scary thing for the chairman of the WADA.

Another way to consider Pound’s last statement is this: If you’re worried “someone is misinterpreting things or doing things wrong,” on what grounds do you presume that your process is flawed in favor of the athletes? Is there a shred of evidence? Or do you somehow just know? How is that? Is it possible, in WADA’s zeal to catch cheaters, the process is skewed against the athletes? Dr. Brent Rushall (see link and citation below) certainly thinks so.

Even worse, and rather ominously, Dick Pound goes on to say, “I suppose if our experts look at it and say on the basis of what we have seen there is no question it should have been positive, we have an opportunity to put that into play.” This sounds very much like a threat to me; are you, Mr. Pound, under the impression you can personally reverse the lawful outcome of WADA testing? Even worse, Mr. Pound seems to believe that he is not only above WADA rules about A sample privacy, and the ethics of personal destruction, he is now free to challenge and reverse what scientific validity still supports the anti-doping efforts of his organization.

Speaking of scientific validity, I may be giving the WADA too much the benefit of the doubt. Dr. Brent Rushall, in the February 2006 Medical News Today wrote,

    In a review of some of the practices and procedures used by WADA, a leading sports scientist from the USA and a top marathon coach from the UK have identified major problems that they believe will lead to innocent athletes paying the price for a flawed anti-doping system.

    Key to their finding was a lack of scientific evidence and protocol at the heart of WADA’s operations.

Further:

    WADA’s clandestine testing procedures appear to ignore basic scientific protocols. One high profile example of this was the former British middle-distance runner, Diane Modahl, whose urine sample was left at room temperature for more than 48 hours allowing bacteria to change the nature of the sample.

    “WADA’s procedures for collecting and analysing samples do not usually follow the minimal guidelines for preserving the integrity of samples,” said Dr Rushall.

Frankly, after the years he spent hounding Lance Armstrong (who never tested positive), and his continuing, dictatorial, “I just know they’re cheating” approach to other athletes’ guilt (such as Floyd Landis and now Marion Jones), I think it’s time for Dick Pound to step down, and for WADA to make its first priority to expunge the politically-bent members, and immediately take steps to establish impartial, scientific credibility.

Once more I must borrow Dennis Miller’s famous signoff: “Of course, that’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.”

The opinions expressed in Steve’s Peeves are intended to entertain and uplift. They may not be appropriate for young readers or the satirically challenged. Parental supervision is advised.

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One Comment on “World Anti-Doping Agency chairman disagrees with his own agency’s rules”


  1. […] Two days ago, I wrote about the chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency, one Dick Pound, and his baffling and unsupportable desire to eliminate WADA’s two-sample testing protocol. The AP and BBC reported he was “disturbed” that Marion Jones’ B sample tested […]


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