June 30th, 2009
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.