Monday, February 27, 2006

Drug testing in sports: time to give up?

A few years ago JAMA featured a series of articles on drug testing for atheletes. I don't recall the details, but I do remember concluding that this was a doomed effort. The drug use was getting very sophisticated, and the tests couldn't keep up. Careful users could stay within the published bounds, and eventually every athelete's metrics would converge on the very limits of the test regimen. (This ought to be an amusing study by the way -- plot the narrowing of the distribution of lab values over time.)

Salon reports the end is now: | King Kaufman's Sports Daily

4. Officials administered a reported 1,200 drug tests, a 71 percent increase over the last Winter Games, in 2002. And there was one positive. One. In Salt Lake, seven athletes tested positive out of 700 tests.

So, thanks to the crackdown by world anti-doping forces, we've gone from 1 percent of the tests coming up positive to 0.0083 percent. Problem solved! Glad we cleared that up.

Drug tests performed on the Austrian cross-country skiers and biathletes following the raid on their quarters that reportedly turned up dozens of syringes and unlabeled drugs came up negative. The International Olympic Committee says the investigation is ongoing.

Positive tests are not required to punish athletes for drug use, the IOC says. It takes circumstantial evidence into account.

That's probably wise, because drug testing is obviously one of the most abject, spectacular law enforcement failures since Prohibition.
Either that or the Olympics are now suddenly a collection of the cleanest, most drug-free saints ever gathered in one place. On second thought, yeah, I'm sure that's it.
The drug tests still serve a purpose. They set an 'upper bound' on how performance enhancing drugs can be used -- users cannot exceed maximal physiologic outcomes.

In a sense the drugs now compensate for the fundamental inequities of genetic gifts ... So in the interests of fairness we should make the most sophisticated drug regimens and monitoring systems universally available to all atheletes. When they are are equallly tuned, including the use of cognitive modifiers, then the outcome of competition will be chance and training ...

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