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

(Christian Petersen)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2011

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.

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