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Diana Taurasi, Alberto Contador cases highlight questions facing anti-doping movement

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2011; 12:58 AM

Basketball star Diana Taurasi's doping suspension was lifted this month after a Turkish lab admitted it erred: She hadn't tested positive after all. That same week, the Spanish cycling federation cleared Alberto Contador of doping charges, ruling that contaminated meat - not performance-enhancing drugs - caused his positive test at last year's Tour de France.

Though the Contador ruling likely will be appealed, the cases illustrate the two most significant problems plaguing current anti-doping systems and their drug tests: positives caused by unintentional ingestion and, less frequently, slipshod lab work. Drug tests are now utilized by nearly every major professional and amateur sports league in the world and widely assumed to be reliable tools for catching cheating athletes.

Yet a significant body of evidence suggests they frequently miss the dopers they are designed to catch, while stigmatizing athletes who had no intention of breaking any rules. Rather than providing comfort that a cheater has been pulled off the playing field, a positive test often brings ambiguity and a costly legal fight.

"You have faith in [the system]; you think there is no way they would make a mistake," said Taurasi, who was suspended by her Turkish professional club after her late-December positive test for modafinil. But "it happens, and this is something very serious. This is our careers and reputations. . . . This is something no athlete should ever have to go through. It's a hard place to get out of."

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, arguably the world's most respected anti-doping agency, has spent more than $50 million on drug testing in its 11 years of existence. Yet according to a Washington Post analysis of the cases, about half of the more than 250 athletes sanctioned for testing violations since 2000 were penalized for unwitting consumption, misfortune or use of recreational drugs that remain banned though they are not known to be performance-enhancing.

WADA and USADA officials acknowledge that the current testing system is not foolproof, but they say it acts both as a powerful deterrent and effective weapon, and that any examination of statistics without appropriate context is misleading.

"It's doing a real disservice to look at only half the reason for testing," said Travis Tygart, chief executive of USADA. "Testing's purpose is to both prevent cheating and to catch those who decide to cheat. If there is no testing, then there is no deterrent, and you will have a free-for-all of chemically enhanced frauds."

Though it's impossible to measure the deterrent effect, it's clear the tests are not rounding up scores of cheaters. One prominent lab director estimated the worldwide rate of positives to be no more than 1 percent; the World Anti-Doping Agency keeps no statistics on the issue, so it's impossible to know, and the pro leagues don't disclose their numbers. USADA ran 8,580 tests in 2009 and sanctioned 20 athletes, a rate of just over 0.2 percent.

"I am disappointed greatly that the anti-doping is not making more progress," the Montreal-based lab director, Christiane Ayotte, said late last year. "We still have a subculture of doping in certain sports, certain disciplines. We still have not been able to solve the problem. We are not a deterrent enough."

Added Ayotte: "If we were [paid for] adverse findings, all of us would be totally bankrupt."

Since their creation in 1999 and 2000, respectively, WADA and USADA have brought unprecedented levels of credibility to anti-doping efforts, which used to be considered rife with national bias and corruption.

Yet while they've stamped out old problems, new ones have emerged. At least 34 non-U.S. athletes have been sanctioned since 2002 for anti-doping rules violations even though arbitration panels pointedly concluded they did not intend to cheat, according to a review of a limited number of available cases. Though the rules have incorporated more leniency than in the past, bans of fewer than six months are rare.

Burden of proof

Anti-doping officials say their systems are rigid for good reason: It's impossible to prove whether an athlete who tests positive ingested the substance by accident. Granting too much leniency to unintentional cases would provide easy excuses for actual cheaters.

Yet well-meaning athletes accused of doping offenses say their reputations and careers are sacrificed in what often seems to be a clumsy, heavy-handed process.

Olympic skeleton favorite Zach Lund used an anti-balding product that contained a banned substance and got sent home from the 2006 Winter Games. Swimming star Jessica Hardy consumed an energy drink later found to have been contaminated by a substance not on its label; she got thrown off the 2008 U.S. Olympic team. Swimmer Emily Brunemann reached for a laxative after a trip to Mexico; she accidentally took one of her mother's prescription drugs and earned a six-month ban in 2009.

Rockville's Emilia Morrow tested positive for two ingredients in her prescription medication at a taekwondo competition last February. Morrow, then a senior at Thomas Wootton High, had never before taken a drug test. She was banned six months.

The International Olympic Committee bars athletes who serve doping suspensions of six months or more from the Olympics.

"If it hadn't been so heartbreaking, it would have been hard to take seriously," said Emilia's mother Athena Morrow, who acknowledged she and her daughter had erred in not closely examining medication Emilia had been taking for two years. "The way they identified, branded and labeled her as they did. There has to be a better way."

Tygart said ignorance of the rules is no excuse for a positive test. He noted that athletes are warned about the dangers of contaminated supplements and urged to be vigilant about what they ingest. WADA lists more than 200 banned drugs and methods.

"The tens of thousands of athletes tested around the world who never have [a positive test] would argue with you that there is an issue," Tygart said. "What is important is that the rules are clear in advance and there is a full and thorough legal process."

WADA Director General David Howman said anti-doping programs must be forgiving only in the most extreme circumstances to ensure their effectiveness.

"You can always find a little case that bucks the system; that doesn't mean you change the system based on one case," he said.

Who gets caught

Howard Jacobs, an attorney who specializes in anti-doping cases, said the problem goes beyond the occasional case. He said in the last decade he has defended 15 athletes who probably doped intentionally, four whose positive tests were for recreational marijuana use and 75 that he classified as inadvertent cases. And then there was Taurasi, who wasn't positive at all.

Michael Straubel, a professor at Valparaiso University School of Law, says only a couple of the 10 to 15 athletes he has represented have not been inadvertent cases.

Improvements in testing - such as enhanced measuring techniques that allow tinier quantities of drugs to be detected - theoretically enhance the chances of catching cheaters. But in practice, critics say, they mostly succeed in finding traces of banned substances consumed unintentionally.

A recent study by a German anti-doping laboratory suggested that food contamination may be a rising problem for drug-tested athletes; the lab tested 28 non-athletes who traveled to China and found 22 positive for clenbuterol - the same drug for which Hardy, Contador and many other athletes tested positive.

"The irony of the system is that those most likely to get caught are those most likely to be the most innocent," said Bill Robinson, the stepfather of the swimmer Hardy, who spent more than $100,000 to get her two-year ban reduced to one. "They're not catching deliberate cheaters; they're catching people who are not cheating at all and are caught up in circumstance."

Doping systems are further hampered by occasional lab mistakes and the slow progress of anti-doping science, which historically has lacked the funding and support to keep up with deep-pocketed cheaters. A test for human growth hormone, which is believed to be widely abused, has been in use since 2004, but only two athletes have been sanctioned for using the drug.

USADA has banned more athletes for using marijuana (40) than any other drug, and never reported a positive test for HGH.

Regardless of the rules they follow, all leagues and anti-doping bodies are dependent upon the same slate of available drug tests. They also rely on the same labs; WADA has accredited 35 internationally. Though many are top-notch and not prone to errors, critics say, there are a few known to do shoddy work. The Turkish lab that analyzed Taurasi's sample - and later admitted that it had mistakenly called it positive - had been suspended by WADA in 2009.

After the Beijing Olympics, the positive tests of two Belarusan hammer throwers were thrown out after an arbitration panel ruled the Beijing lab made significant errors. U.S. sprinter LaTasha Jenkins was cleared in 2006 on the basis of errors by labs in Germany and Belgium.

Athletes say they want strong anti-doping efforts because they don't want widespread cheating. But they also want a system that is either more reliable or provides further protections for non-cheaters ensnared by positive tests.

"The vast majority of cases I work on are either the result of stupidity or supplements that are contaminated," said chemist Paul Scott, who has served as an expert witness in numerous anti-doping cases. Such athletes should be warned, "the penalty you're about to receive for this is massively disproportionate to your blame."

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