Swiss doping expert outlines new concerns

Martial Saugy's lab is responsible for creating an international network for the athlete biological passport scheme Keystone

The head of the Swiss doping analysis laboratory, Martial Saugy, talks to about the abuse of “snus”, cannabis and energy-boosting EPOs in sport.

This content was published on May 2, 2010 - 12:47

The Lausanne lab works closely with Anti-doping Swiss, the independent national anti-doping agency, which is getting into its stride after a slow start in July 2008.

The agency last week held its second annual news conference at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne.

At the end of last year the government granted an additional SFr1 million ($0.9 million) to boost the agency’s annual SFr5 million budget, enabling it to finally carry out blood tests on elite athletes. What are your main anti-doping priorities?

Martial Saugy: We are working on a number of specific projects. The first is EPO, which is still one of the most widely used doping agents. We are looking at how to improve detection techniques so that we can go to court with legally watertight evidence.

We are also putting together an immune extraction technique, which uses antibodies to purify EPO Cera samples.

As for the athlete biological passport scheme [which allows sporting authorities to detect doping by studying an athlete's biological profile], we are responsible for creating an international network. It’s a huge job; the entire logistics and organisation have to be reinvented so that scientific anomalies are credible before the courts.

Cannabis is also another area of research. Using cannabis has been banned in competitions since 2004. But it’s very difficult to say exactly when it has been taken, as the active substance stays in your body for a long time. The problem is not just scientific – it’s also a socio-political issue. Europeans are keen to see cannabis taken off the World Anti-doping Agency (Wada’s) list of banned doping products, whilst Asian countries and the United States are totally against the idea. Nicotine does not feature as a banned product in the World Antidoping Code. Is this not problematic?

M.S.: Since the introduction of the ban on smoking in public places, there has been an increase in the consumption of snus, a moist powder tobacco product from Sweden. It is widely used by winter sportsmen – over half of the players in junior elite hockey teams. It’s a product that has both stimulating and relaxing short-term properties.

Nicotine has a very rapid addictive effect and many parents and young sportspeople are worried about this phenomenon. Snus is bad for your health and its use is unsporting, which are two of the three criteria that define a doping product. As for the third – improved performance – the debate is still open. But depending on how it is consumed, nicotine is a stimulant that has the same effects as amphetamines.

At a wider level, numerous pharmacological aids, like antidepressants, are used in competitive sport. These products are contrary to my vision of sport.

I am in favour of greater monitoring by Wada. When such phenomena are highlighted, measures will be taken, as was the case with pseudoephedrine, which appeared on the list of banned products from January 2010. Doping in top-level sport is becoming more advanced. The French Anti-doping Agency recently highlighted protocols that allow people to be negative during controls despite having consumed banned products.

M.S.: These are product regimes that allow people to avoid the detection window defined by laboratories. For example, an athlete takes a product at 11pm that can no longer be detected at 7am the following morning but which still has an effect for a few hours. The subtle and combined use of certain products allows people to slip through the net, such as when they transfuse their own blood. Of the 80 known EPOs, some are also difficult to detect.

The only effective response is the athlete passport. Blood tests over a period of time allow us to identify anomalies. Even if a product cannot be detected, it will lead to a major change in blood level values and the cheat will not be able to escape the police. Is the issue of what information appears in the athlete passport likely to be contested in the courts?

M.S: This is our major concern right now. Wada’s anti-doping code was conceived in such a way that it was up to the athlete to prove their innocence by providing medical certificates that explain any anomalies.

With the introduction of the athlete passport, the question of proof has been shifted back to anti-doping authorities. Any small procedural detail can then result in sanctions being dropped. This has to be looked at again from a legal point of view to put the onus of proof back on the athlete.

We are being challenged in the courts by other scientists, who view us as sports police officers and are trying to discredit our evidence. But our scientific arguments are very solid and accepted by the forensic science world.

If the situation doesn’t change, sports federations and governments that have invested huge amounts in a credible anti-doping system will feel cheated.

Samuel Jaberg, (translated from French by Simon Bradley)

Swiss Anti-Doping

The Swiss anti-doping agency was created on July 1, 2008, with its headquarters in Bern. The director is Matthias Kamber. The agency’s foundation board, presided by former Bernese skier Corinne Schmidhauser, come from the business, politics, medical and sporting worlds.

2010 budget: SFr5 million, provided by Swiss Olympic, the Swiss sports federations’ umbrella organisation (SFr1.9 million), the federal government (SFr2.7 million) and private sponsors.

Swiss Anti-Doping works closely with the Swiss Laboratory for Doping Analyses in Lausanne, which is one of 35 labs that are part of Wada. Some 20 people work at the laboratory, which specializes in EPO, growth hormones, testosterone and blood doping.

In 2009 Swiss Anti-Doping carried out 1,470 controls – 554 in competition and 925 out of competition. Twenty four violations of anti-doping rules were registered. Around half concerned the use of cannabis, four were anabolic steroids, six for stimulants and two refusals to be tested.

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World Anti-doping Agency (Wada)

Wada was established on November 10, 1999 in Lausanne to promote and coordinate the fight against doping in sport internationally.

The agency's headquarters are located in Montreal, Canada.
Four regional offices in Lausanne, Tokyo, Cape Town and Montevideo facilitate the agency's work around the globe.

The agency was set up as a foundation under the initiative of the IOC with the support and participation of intergovernmental organisations, governments, public authorities and other public and private bodies fighting against doping in sport.

Wada coordinates the development and implementation of the world anti-doping code, the document harmonising anti-doping policies in all sports and all countries. Some 600 sports organisations have signed up to the new code.

To date, 130 governments have ratified the International Convention against Doping in Sport, the legal tool prepared and adopted to harmonise laws and regulations with the world Anti-doping code.

The agency focuses on seven areas: code compliance monitoring; cooperation with law enforcement, science and medicine; anti-doping coordination (ADAMS); anti-doping development; education and athlete outreach.

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