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Can you beat the biological passport?

drugs-By Scott Leitch

Introduced to as a program which would drastically combat doping in athletics in 2009, the biological passport has since then been moderately successful in catching athletes using performance enhancing drugs, but a recent BBC Panorama documentary shot holes in the effectiveness of the anti-doping initiative.

The World Anti-Doping Agency, based in Montreal, has released a statement which suggests that they will be looking into how well the biological passport is at preventing the use of EPO, a banned drug used by endurance athletes to gain a competitive advantage.

“We acknowledge that the programme also raises questions regarding the ability of athletes to dope by taking minimal amounts of performance enhancing substances without testing positive, otherwise known as ‘micro-dosing,’” reads their statement. “It is an issue that we are exploring in great detail with experts from across the anti-doping community.”

Mark Daly, the journalist who acted as the face of the program, ordered EPO online and used himself a guinea pig in at attempt to beat the biological passport. He followed a 14-week cycle, similar to what would be used by dopers, broken into three stages. The first three weeks he trained and established a baseline for his blood tests, without using any drugs. From weeks four to 10, he took micro doses of EPO while continuing his training. Between weeks 11 and 14, Daly followed a “washout,” the period where he stops using EPO and where the biological passport is meant to be the most effective at catching cheaters.

Throughout all of this, Daly was taking blood samples every week and having them analyzed. Never would his blood have flagged a doping violation.

But the point isn’t simply to avoid a doping violation. It’s to gain an advantage while avoiding a test. It’s commonly understood EPO offers endurance athletes an advantage and somewhat understood that micro-dosing can avoid tests, but Daly managed both, testing his fitness before, during and after.

Daly’s experiment is not dissimilar from the results which aired on a French documentary earlier in the year where other journalists took micro doses of EPO and avoided positive tests while gaining performance advantages.

“While the programme suggests that the journalist, through his experiment, was able to enhance his performance without recording an adverse analytical finding (AAF),” further reads the statement, “we haven’t been provided with any information that would validate this allegation nor is there anything in the programme which would indicate that his profile would have ‘beaten’ the ABP programme.”