Floyd Landis' positive test shows why drug testing will never work.

The stadium scene.
July 27 2006 6:46 PM

Tour de Farce

Floyd Landis' positive test shows why drug testing will never work.

Like much of the rest of the world, I was thrilled by Floyd Landis' startling comeback in Stage 17 of the Tour de France. But since I write about doping and sports, I've learned to be suspicious of miracles. The real tragedy of doping is the way it tarnishes everything and everybody and forbids us from giving in to the wonder of sports. And now the news comes out that Floyd Landis tested positive for high testosterone levels following that very same miracle stage. There is a disheartening feeling of inevitability about the whole thing.

It is certainly possible that Landis did nothing wrong. The test the Tour de France uses for testosterone does not actually detect the use of a drug; it detects a ratio of testosterone to another hormone called epitestosterone. There are vagaries, the science can be imprecise, and it is known that massive athletic effort can fog the test. Innocent until proven guilty and all that.

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Regardless of Landis' fate, this episode, and the banning of a group of top riders before this year's Tour began, illustrates why the current system of doping detection and "justice" does not work. The main reason why it doesn't work is that the world, and especially the American sports consuming public, is not ready to embrace the changes necessary to leech drugs from sports. Sure, Congress holds hearings on steroid use in baseball. Sports officials make earnest statements, and athletes decry those among them who dope. Fans and editorial writers demand action. But do they realize what they are asking for?

That the current testing regimen does not work to prevent doping is painfully obvious. True enough, Landis' "A" sample—the first of two needed to confirm that he broke the rules—turned up positive. So, you could argue that the testing worked in this case. But if his testosterone was low, what does that mean about the value of the test? You might point to Tyler Hamilton, who was caught using somebody else's blood to boost his own endurance by a new test that detects foreign blood cells. He was banned for two years, sure. But how long had he been using that technique before he was found out by a brand new procedure? Cyclists are always figuring out new ways to dope, and the testers will always be playing catch-up. For example, there is still no urine test for human growth hormone, a commonly used performance booster. There's also no test for a new drug called Increlex, which gives athletes more insulinlike growth factor 1—a protein that does essentially the same thing as growth hormone.

If a test won't stop doping, what will? The biggest crackdowns of recent times have been the result of law enforcement action, not testing. The BALCO case blew up because the feds started investigating the BALCO lab and because a track coach, Trevor Graham, blew the whistle by sending a syringe of a previously undetectable steroid to testing authorities. The scandal that wiped out the cream of this year's Tour crop was the result of an investigation by Spanish police. During the last Winter Olympics in Italy, the Italian police raided the quarters of the Austrian ski team. Nobody tested positive in either the Spanish or the Austrian scandals.

When cyclists and track athletes get caught doping these days, their punishment gets meted out by the World Anti-Doping Agency. This odd parallel justice system is not fair to athletes, science, and sports consumers. In order to stamp out doping, WADA must be backed by real law enforcement.

Italy has already taken a step in that direction. Athletes there could face jail for "fraud"—competing under false pretenses. The Italian government treats doping as a criminal matter, not something to be dealt with from the cosseted confines of sports. Now, a doper must weigh the potential for enormous wealth and prestige that a victory would bring against the possibility of a temporary ban from competition for a first offense. In the Italian model, he must also weigh a stint behind bars or a substantial financial penalty.

We are faced, then, with a proposal to criminalize sports doping. There would be raids by the feds, trials, and law enforcement resources burned in the pursuit of multi-millionaire druggies. I'm not so sure we have the stomach for this. Barry Bonds is still a hero in San Francisco. There are no boycotts of Giants games. And remember that if Bonds goes down, it will be for perjury or tax evasion—none of the athletes involved in the BALCO case will ever see jail time for taking performance-enhancing drugs.

Major League Baseball insists that it is taking care of its own drug problems, and the sports-consuming public seems content to believe it. Only aficionados can recall who was banned from track and field because of the BALCO case. Lance Armstrong, who has struggled through years of accusations but has never officially tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, remains an American icon. And if it would be hard to muster support for a federal justice role here, think about the difficulty of mounting an international effort. Just imagine the outcry the first time French police pick up a star American tennis player during the French Open.

This is what American consumers have to ask themselves: If we really want doping to stop, we have to be prepared to see our heroes do hard time. Do we care that much?

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