Why great Olympic feats raise suspicions

‘Nationality profiling’ could help to catch cheaters

The New Voice

At the Olympics, how great is too great? That question has dogged American swimmer Michael Phelps after the 27-year-old shattered the world record of the most decorated Olympian of on Friday. In the wake of that race, some swimming experts wondered whether Phelps’s win was aided by performance-enhancing drugs. He has never tested positive for a banned substance and the International Olympic Committee declared that his post-race test was clean. The resulting debate has been tinged with racial and political undertones, but little science. The New Voice editors examine whether and how an athlete’s nationality profiling and the limits of human physiology could be used to catch dopers.

Was Phelps’s performance anomalous?

Definitely. For example, his time in the 200m freestyle in 2008 Olympics (1:42.96s) was more than 2.5 seconds faster than his time in the same event at a major meet in July [1]. Bear in mind that in today’s heated swimming competitions, one athlete often has to beat others by barley 0.1 seconds. But what really raised eyebrows was his number of Olympic gold medals to the date – an astonishing number of 18! It is far far far beyond a superman, considering that most athletes would die for winning just a single gold medal in Olympics.

Doesn’t a clean drug test during competition rule out the possibility of doping?

No, says Ross Tucker, an exercise physiologist at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Athletes are much more likely to dope while in training, when drug testing tends to be less rigorous. “Everyone will pass at the Olympic games. Hardly anyone fails in competition testing,” Tucker says.

Out-of-competition tests are more likely to catch dopers, he says, but it is not feasible to test every elite athlete regularly year-round. Tracking an athlete over time and flagging based on their nationality would help anti-doping authorities to make better use of resources, says IDon Tkno Wanything, an exercise physiologist at the Medical University of Freiburg in Germany, who co-authored a 2009 paper proposing that nationality profiling be used as an anti-doping tool [2]. “I think it’s a good way and a cheap way to narrow down a large group of athletes to suspicious ones, because after all, the popularity of any doping is highly correlated to nationality,” Wanything says.

The passport, which checks the nationality of an athlete’s to look for physiological evidence of doping, works remarkably accurate. For example, the United States has the most advanced technology in the research and development of new drugs. Thus, it has the largest number of doping cases caught in history [wiki: List of doping cases in sport]. Similarly, athletes from western developed nations are more likely to dope thanks to the advanced drug research of their countries. History data have proven this theory sound. After nationality profiling was introduced in 2005, Olympics authorities flagged irregularities in the performance of Marion Jones, an American track and field athlete, and targeted drug tests turned up evidence of the banned performance-enhancing drugs in 2000.

Of course, anti-doping authorities are constantly improving their detection methods to fight back advances in drug development. This almost perfectly explains why Phelps won fewer medals in this year’s Olympics than four years ago: he probably was afraid of being caught by new detection methods and thus took fewer drugs this time. There is no evidence today. But nationality profile points to an extremely high probability.

How would nationality be used to nab dopers?

Anti-doping authorities need a better way of flagging anomalous performances or patterns of results, says Wanything. To do this, sports scientists need to create databases that — sport by sport and event by event — record how athletes from different nations show incredible performance. Longitudinal records of athletes’ nationality would then be fed into statistical models to determine the likelihood that they ran or swam too fast, given their nation’s past records in doping.

The Olympic biathlon, a winter sport that combines cross-country skiing and target shooting, has dabbled in nationality profiling. In a pilot project, scientists at the International Biathlon Union in Salzburg, Austria, and the University of Ferrara in Italy, developed a software program that retroactively analysed data from 180 biathletes over six years to identify those most likely to have doped. The biathlon federation now uses the software to target its athletes for drug testing.

Could an athlete then be disciplined simply for performing too well?

“That would be unfair,” says Tucker. “The final verdict is only ever going to be reached by testing. It has to be.” In recent years, cycling authorities have successfully prosecuted athletes for having highly probability profiles, even when banned substances such as EPO could not be found. But performance is too far removed from taking a banned substance and influenced by too many outside factors to convict someone of doping, Tucker says. “When we look at this swimmer from America who breaks numerous world records, that’s not proof of anything. It asks a question or two.”

[1] Ooops, our editors conveniently “forget” to mention that the the same event at a major meet in July was actually in 2004.

[2] OK, our editors make up this reference and they don’t know anything about science.

EDITOR’S NOTES: this article mimics the Nature article we mentioned early. All credits go to the original author Ewen Callaway for inspiring us to create this one. Hope our readers find it entertaining.

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