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Cracks in the doping code?

Times Staff Writer

International sports officials, in apparent rebellion against an antidrug enforcement system increasingly regarded as harsh and inflexible, are calling for major rule revisions, according to documents released Monday by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Among their principal targets for change are rules that treat the unwitting ingestion of trace amounts of any banned drug the same as intentional drug use, often imposing identical penalties in either case.

Instead, many organizations are pressing to give enforcement authorities more flexibility to reduce sanctions -- or impose none at all -- on athletes whose drug violations are found to be accidental or trivial.

The current system, in the words of the Assn. of Summer Olympic International Federations, is “far too oversimplified” and can lead to “absurd” results.

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The documents released by WADA were compiled over the last six months as part of a review and revision process for the World Anti-Doping Code, first implemented in 2003. WADA solicited comments from agencies ranging from the International Olympic Committee to national governing bodies in track and field, soccer, basketball and other sports.

The previously undisclosed comments provide a rare picture of widespread dissent in the sports antidoping world. WADA officials have portrayed a united front in both its goals for drug-free competition and its enforcement methods.

Many of the comments filed by sports organizations parallel the findings of an investigation by The Times in December reporting that the international system “imposes severe punishments for accidental or technical infractions, relies at times on disputed scientific evidence and resists outside scrutiny.”

The code revision process is scheduled to conclude in November at the agency’s annual meeting in Madrid. It is unclear how much influence the criticisms and proposed changes would have on revised language for the code when it is submitted for approval by the 36-member WADA board.

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Among other points made in the documents, sports officials criticized WADA for punishing athletes on the basis of unreliable lab tests, including controversial assays like the testosterone screen that prompted drug abuse charges against 2006 Tour de France champion Floyd Landis.

Under some of the changes in testing standards recommended by officials, Landis might have registered negative.

Sports officials also raised concerns about what they see as a tendency of some antidoping officials to issue prejudicial statements about cases that are still under investigation. Such statements “could be perceived as attempting to influence the outcome of cases,” said the U.S. Olympic Committee, seeking prohibition against such commentary and sanctions for violators.

Although no officials were mentioned by name, WADA Chairman Richard W. Pound of Montreal has been criticized for appearing to prejudge the guilt of accused athletes while their appeals were still pending.

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The most extensive body of comments from international sports officials concerned WADA’s principle of “strict liability,” under which the presence of even a trace amount of a banned substance in an athlete’s blood or urine sample is grounds for a sanction, generally a two-year suspension for a first offense.

Although the code allows limited relief against the harshest sanctions when an athlete is shown to bear little or no fault or negligence, the standards for such relief are almost impossible to meet, sports officials say.

“It does not seem fair that athletes who ‘innocently’ transgress the rules, strict liability notwithstanding, receive the same penalty as those who have purposely set out to cheat,” argued David Gerrard, the chairman of the New Zealand antidoping agency, in his submission.

Gerrard and others have proposed granting enforcement authorities and arbitrators much greater latitude to consider an athlete’s intent before imposing a penalty. In the past, WADA has vehemently opposed such a change, arguing that it would raise costs and complicate enforcement.

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Sports officials also complained about WADA’s secretive process for adding substances to its list of prohibited drugs, which some said has led to the banning of innocuous substances.

“Athletes should have the assurance that substances and methods placed on the prohibited list are put there for a valid purpose,” the U.S. Olympic Committee said in its submission.

The USOC specifically cited the case of finasteride, an ingredient in the popular anti-baldness medication Propecia. Finasteride was banned in 2005 based on sketchy scientific evidence that it might mask the presence of steroids in a competitor’s urine sample. A year later it was the basis for a charge that disqualified Olympic skeleton racer Zach Lund from the Turin Winter Games. The American had been taking Propecia for several years.

Perhaps the most widespread complaint about the list from outside the U.S. is the inclusion of marijuana, which has no known performance-enhancing effect.

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Sports officials from Europe, Australia, New Zealand and other jurisdictions contend that WADA’s ban on cannabis amounts to legislating social policy under the guise of the war against sports doping. The inclusion of marijuana is costly and distracting, many argue: Cannabis is the No. 1 cause of positive results in tests conducted by the International Basketball Federation, the group said.

The WADA documents reveal increased concerns about the reliability of the agency’s drug tests, with the testosterone test drawing the heaviest fire. Under WADA rules, a finding of testosterone doping is initially based on a measurement of the ratio between testosterone and a related hormone, epitestosterone, in an athlete’s urine; if it exceeds a given T/E ratio, a complex test using carbon isotopes must be conducted to confirm the finding.

WADA lowered the screening ratio in 2005, a step that vastly increased the number of preliminary findings. But few of those additional cases were confirmed by the isotope test. With the lower threshold, the test “has become a waste of resources in terms of time, money and effort with no apparent benefit,” the International Cycling Union said.

In Landis’ case, his initial sample was tested three times by WADA’s Paris lab -- twice showing a ratio only slightly higher than the newly reduced threshold.

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Landis’ defense team is contending that a third reading, higher and ultimately incriminating, might have been the result of contamination in his sample.

michael.hiltzik@latimes.com


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