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Former overall World Cup Champion Virpi Kuitunen (FIN) recently called for the use of embedded microchips to track the whereabouts of professional athletes for anti-doping purposes.  The idea that this could ever become mandatory is ridiculous.  The privacy issues with requiring an athlete to embed an electronic tracking device in their body are enormous – and they should be.  Talk about Big Brother.

But the idea highlights several interesting issues.  First of all, the current system does not make anyone happy.  Athletes must report their daily location and include a one hour window when they will be available for anti-doping inspections.  Every day.  Do you ever make a last-minute decision to head out of town for a few days – to visit friends, hit the mountains?  Such spontaneous endeavors become significantly more difficult if you are an elite athlete.  Sure, as Duncan Douglas points out, competing at the highest level is a privilege, not a right, but most anti-doping measures have been inflicted on the innocent because of the cheaters.  At best, clean athletes gamely endure the strict protocols, while others have come out strongly against the invasions of privacy and the restrictions on their daily lives.

And then there is the massive expense of the anti-doping efforts.  Millions of dollars spent trying to keep sports clean – imagine what it could be used for – athlete development, scholarships, making the sport more financially accessible, the list is endless.  The general response to the issue of cheating is a call for more testing and more oversight.  This is much easier in sports like Major League Baseball, where all the athletes travel together and are on a strict schedule for nine months of the year.  But skiing is different, and more testing means more expense and an increased burden an athletes. So a system that could reduce this burden, and be less costly would certainly be welcome.

Is Kuitunen’s rather far-fetched microchip idea the answer?  Again, it is hard to envision a scenario where WADA could require such chips, but it is worth thinking the concept through.  Just tracking an athlete’s whereabouts is not enough.  The whole point of knowing where an athlete is at any time is to allow testers access.  That is where the biggest time and expense come in to play, sending legions of testers around the world to bang on doors to collect samples.  This cycle will continue unless the ant-doping community can come up with an entirely new paradigm of testing.  And any new approach will need to be driven by technology.

Many have called for harsher penalties – lifetime bans for first-time offenders, whole teams being banned if one member is caught, bans for coaches and team officials of athletes caught, etc.  Stronger penalties would certainly help, but the idea is fraught with complications.  How do you deal with situations where young athletes are pressured into doping by team leaders.  What about athletes who are unknowingly doped, a la East German swimmers (we hope this doesn’t happen anymore, but…), and then there is the issue of reliability of testing.  Douglas, an anesthesiologist, talks about this as well, and it doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in the system.  If you are going to throw someone out for life, you need to be very sure that the person did in fact cheat.

And even with stronger penalties, the incentive to cheat will remain.  New methods of doping will be discovered, and tests will lag behind.

In a comment on the microchip article, Douglas suggested that “only people and countries, programs with a history of cheating should be put under such [the highest level of] scrutiny.  There is certainly something to that.  If a certain program has been consistently found guilty of cheating, they should be more closely watched – a probationary period.  But you can’t stop testing everyone else.  It isn’t fair and it could lead to a rise in doping of those programs.

So back to microchips.  If you take this to a sci-fi extreme, there are some interesting possibilities.  What if the chip was not just a locator, but actually the tester.  It could constantly monitor blood chemistry and possibly internal fluids as well.  These values would be reported back automatically and spikes in normal levels would be flagged.  It would be extremely difficult to hide illicit performance enhancers.  Of course, by the time this type of technology is available, genetic modification might be the doping method of choice.  We may see DNA profiling as a standard anti-doping measure.  And as Douglas points out, we are already at a point of athletes being guilty until proven innocent, and privacy is an afterthought at best.

Kuitunen’s call for microchips is probably a response to the frustrations of frequent testing, and an effort to show how “clean” she is now – given her past conviction for doping.  But the idea of looking to a high tech solution is intriguing.  Of course it continues anti-doping along the path toward Big Brother-type oversight.  And thus far, history has shown us that there are always cheaters finding new ways to cheat.

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7 Responses to “Track the Dope”

  1. douglas6xc@gmail.com Says:

    Great editorial. I practice Anesthesia not Emergency Medicine. As one can imagine it really sucks to be clean and not do as well as someone does who you believe is cheating. Just because some one else does it and they get away with it does not justify doing it. That is the argument every kid gives his parent for some misdeeds done at a young age. Once you get older and more mature, hopefully one realizes that two wrong’s do not make it correct. Personally I would rather “lose” then cheat.
    Everyone who takes something positive(except a doping control) home is a Winner when it comes to sport.
    Hopefully in the future it will be easier to catch the Cheater’s.
    Although history show’s that where there is a will there is a way. The cheater’s of the last decades were always it looks about not a step but a mile ahead of the tester’s.
    That is scary.
    Everyone should read Steroid Nation it affords an eye opening inside look at Balco where the enabler’s were not Medical Doctor’s but Chemist’s and Entrepaneur’s. Quite Scary.
    Again thanks for the editorial.

  2. FasterSkier Says:

    Hey Duncan – my apologies on getting your profession wrong! I fixed it in the piece. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Eldar Rønning Reacts to Kuitunen’s Microchip Idea Says:

    [...] It is unlikely that anything will come of Kuitunen’s proposal, so Rønning doesn’t have to worry.  However, many athletes disagree with the Norwegian’s assessment of the current system.  Everyone from star Rafael Nadal to top US swimmers have complained, and apparently the website used for updates is cumbersome and finicky.  WADA is currently working to improve the reliability, especially in regards to updates from mobile devices. [...]

  4. David Knoop Says:

    I have suggested in the past on this web site, a simple historical stat sheet of how many times X athelete representing Y nation has been busted for doping in FIS WC sponsored and or Olympic Cross Country Ski events.

    The results and trend patterns should tell a story.

    Comparing pervasive doping in baseball, and Track and Field, which more often than not pertains to SPRINTING, cycling, weight lifting, etc… just leads anyone to admire societal issues rather than focus on THIS sport.

    I often laugh at how serious people get on this website with anecdotal commentary that is what it is and has ZERO influence on policy.

    My suggestion is that if you want to really make a difference here, then show some facts and stats. Just maybe then a source like Lanngren will be quoting Fasterskier more often than what is typically the opposite.

    Cheers!

  5. FasterSkier Says:

    Hi Dave – I’m not sure that I see how a stat sheet of who has been caught and how many times will do anything to change doping issues. We all know that doping has been primarily concentrated in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Bloc. Do we really need a list? And what story would it tell? One we already know.

    Targeting repeat nations more closely with testing is not unreasonable – something I mention above. I’m not sure if that is what you are alluding to. Over all your comment doesn’t really say anything. Of course FasterSkier and those commenting on it don’t influence policy. Neither does Langrenn. And what is wrong with translating reports from Langrenn? If skiing was as big as football, FasterSkier could hire a European bureau chief to cover the sport from that side of Atlantic. But until then we have to rely on sources like Langrenn to stay informed.

    Finally, this was an editorial looking very specifically at the extreme notion of placing microchips in athletes. It was a merely an exercise, following a seemingly crazy suggestion through to the extreme. And an editorial, by definition is opinion. I made a conscious choice to start a blog for these columns, to separate them out from the other content.

  6. David Knoop Says:

    Thanks for your answer Topher, I really appreciate that.
    Yet lest we have another doping article which no doubt will come sooner or later albeit with plenty of anecdotal commentary, please just list a country count of convicted dopers in xc ski racing. That way we can stop the anecdotal comparisons of cycling, baseball and track and field & swimming comparisons.

    Then we can look at Norway, a country typically against doping. They win alot of cross country ski races. Is it culture? No doubt yet now we can discuss phillosophical training differences of say Jan Helgerud vs. the more traditional approaches within Norway, i.e. how do they make winners?

    How does that match our current training programs of our youth programs as well as our best skiers. Who coaches them
    and what is their philosophy to training?

    Constant focus on the surface of doping without delving into how for example Norway doesn’t dope and the way they win would be so much more informative. Aagh! I will probably have to read about Peter Northug but please yes even him, what makes him fast??!!

    Of course…
    Cheers!
    Dave

  7. FasterSkier Says:

    Hi Dave – I agree completely that we need to look at what a “non-doping” country like Norway is doing. And I think we are doing that, but have learned that we need to be careful about trying to directly replicate the Norwegian model in the US. Mark Johnson’s recent blog posts are a great addition to the conversation on Norway.

    I’m still a little confused though – how would publishing a country count of convicted dopers change the dialogue on doping? I’m happy to have a go at this, I’m hoping the FIS or WADA may be able to provide a comprehensive list, but I would like to have a clear idea of how it would help.

    And how does examining Norwegian success relate to doping? Clearly we want to look at programs that are winning clean as opposed to winning dirty, but beyond that, does doping need to enter the picture?

    Thanks!