25th July 2018

WADA 2017 test figures Part 1: Bodybuilding records most AAFs

Amongst sports where over 1,000 samples were collected during 2017, Bodybuilding records the highest percentage of tests that resulted in an adverse analytical finding (AAF), the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) 2017 Testing Figures Report (PDF below) reveals. A total of 292 AAFs from 1,301 samples (22.44%) were recorded for the non-Olympic sport during 2017, up from 253 AAFs from 1,324 samples (19%) recorded during 2016.

As in 2016, in Olympic sporting disciplines, combat sports lead the table in terms of the percentage of tests that result in an AAF, as shown in our table on the right. Boxing has overtaken wrestling as the Olympic sport that has the highest percentage of tests that result in an AAF (1.86%).

The Report also shows that during 2017, AAFs were recorded for hang gliding (1), bowling (1), chess (2), dancesport (3), powerboating (3), sumo (1), tug of war (1), mini golf (2), sport fishing (4), wheelchair curling (6), arm wrestling (19), and broomball (2). However, we will have to wait until WADA’s 2017 Anti-Doping Rule Violation Report (ADRV) is published next year to find out if any of these AAFs resulted in an ADRV.

An AAF is no indication that an athlete is doping. An AAF is recorded when an athlete’s A samples tests positive for a prohibited substance, and does not reflect an ADRV. The AAF could be identified as a discrepancy should the athlete’s B sample not return the same result; or the AAF could be explained by the athlete holding a valid Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) to use that substance. 

Earlier this year, WADA published its 2016 ADRV Report (PDF below), which revealed that ADRVs were recorded in fringe sports, such as lawn bowls (1); bridge (7); dancesport (2); powerboating (3); tug of war (1); cheerleading (1); wheelchair curling (1); wheelchair fencing (2); and arm wrestling (9). However, as the tables do not break down the ADRVs recoded in each sport by substance category, it is difficult to draw any conclusions from these figures.

In explanation, whilst we can conclude that a cheerleader was sanctioned for a doping offence in 2016, we do not know that the substance s/he took was intended to enhance sporting performance. For many of the sports listed above, it is difficult to conceive of a substance that could enhance an athlete’s performance. The cases listed above could have involved recreational drugs that were ingested outside of a sporting context, or accidental contamination of supplements, food or water. 

In some sports, there appears to be a large discrepancy between the number of tests conducted in competition (IC) against those conducted out of competition (OOC). Football collected 26% (9,718) of its samples out of competition, compared to 45% (1,819) for boxing. Shooting collected 293 samples (19%) out of competition, compared to 1,248 in competition.

Blood tests

At first glance at the statistics in the Report, it would appear that blood tests result in few AAFs. However, although this may be the case, it is understood that a different matrix is used for blood tests, and so the number of AAFs from blood tests cannot be compared to the number of AAFs reported from urine tests. Only selected erythropoiesis stimulating agents (ESAs – such as Erythropoietin or EPO) can be detected through both blood and urine analysis.

WADA’s Report lists the 29,130 samples collected as part of the Athlete Biological Passport (ABP) separately. The figures reported in the table above and listed below represent blood tests taken outside of ABP longitudinal blood profiling, which is designed to mark changes in blood values over time that may indicate doping.

In a ‘Questions and Answers’ document (PDF below) published alongside the Report, WADA states that there has been an increase in the number of AAFs from the application of the ESA test to blood samples. Whilst this is true, the percentage of AAFs from the application of the ESA test to blood samples remained the same as last year. 

In 2016, 22 ESA AAFs from 3,464 blood tests (0.64%) were reported, and in 2017, 29 ESA AAFs from 4,531 blood tests (0.64%) were reported. In the document, WADA points out that the 2016 and 2017 results represent a significant increase over 2015, when the ESA test resulted in one AAF from 3,219 blood samples (0.03%).

Outside of the ABP, a total of 14,074 OOC blood tests were collected from athletes competing in the Olympic sports during 2017, with eight returning an AAF (0.06%). All of these involved athletics or cycling. In competition (IC), 4,927 blood tests resulted in 21 AAFs (0.43%), all of which involved cycling. 

A total of 1,247 blood samples were collected from tennis players in 2017, 21% of the sport’s 5,959 sample total. In skiing, 845 blood samples were collected in 2017, 11% of the 7,761 sample total. In football, 1,959 blood samples were collected in 2017, 6% of the 37,118 sample total. Fifteen percent (1,589) of weightlifting’s sample total involved blood tests. None of these tests resulted in an AAF.

Dopey dopers

The combined number of AAFs and atypical findings (ATFs) recorded in ADAMS from urine tests was 2,883 from 224,167 urine samples (1.3%). For blood tests collected outside of the ABP, 41 AAFs and ATFs were recorded from 21,065 blood samples (0.2%). As explained above, this does not suggest that urine tests are ‘more effective’ than urine tests, as a different matrix is used to detect different substances.

It is understood that blood tests are more expensive than urine tests. Such low rates of return in terms of AAFs perhaps explains why some sports in which it is understood that there is a higher prevalence of AAFs – such as weightlifting – collect so few blood samples (8,981 urine tests against 1,589 blood tests) outside of the ABP system and outside of Gas chromatography combustion isotope ratio mass spectrometry (GC/C/IRMS) analysis. 

When announcing its Report, WADA highlighted a 7.1% increase in the samples analysed to 322,050 in 2017; whilst AAFs decreased from 1.6% of the sample total in 2016 to 1.43% in 2017. WADA points out that this is ‘primarily due to the significant decrease in the reported cases of meldonium’. As the page header graphic shows, the percentage of tests that results in an AAF is still higher than it was in 2015, before meldonium was added to the 2016 Prohibited List. WADA can legitimately claim that more people are testing positive.

However, whether more doping cheats are being caught is debatable. For most of the substances that feature on the Prohibited List, any amount detected in an athlete’s sample represents an AAF. Detection methods are improving, and phrases such as a ‘pinch of salt in an Olympic sized swimming pool’ are becoming more common in doping cases (see here and here). 

Poor regulation of the supplement industry means that manufacturers face little consequence for contamination issues that result in an AAF. As such, it is debatable whether the testing regime is improving the 40% to 60% of cases that are inadvertent, as highlighted by John Ruger, Athlete Ombudsman for the US Olympic Committee (USOC) at Tackling Doping in Sport in 2013.

UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) recently announced that since January 2016, 30% of the 72 ADRVs it reported were intelligence led. The percentage of doping cheats that it is catching outside of the testing system appears to be increasing.

However to be fair, it is also true that an athlete faced with an AAF will always attempt argue that their use was inadvertent. The Chris Froome and Tyson Fury cases illustrated that an elite athlete faced with an AAF stands more chance of being exonerated due to the financial resources that they possess to argue their case. ‘‎In recognition of the respective counter-arguments and the risks inherent in the dispute resolution process, each side has accepted a compromise of its position’, stated UKAD when announcing Fury’s backdated ban that allowed him to immediately begin competing again.

This is not to suggest that Froome or Fury have done anything wrong – far from it. They have been rightfully exonerated of a doping offence and such cases should be welcomed by other athletes who can use such rulings to support their own defences. However, as Gordon Gilbert, Sonny Webster,  Beth McKenzie and others have discovered, marshalling a scientific defence in a system where an athlete is guilty until they can prove that they are innocent is an expensive business that not every athlete can afford.

It is also of concern that many sports appear to be relying on in competition testing. David Howman, WADA’s former Director General, warned in 2013 that sport was only catching the “dopey dopers”. Whilst it is understood that in-competition tests provide a deterrent effect, it could be argued that the sophisticated doper might use prohibited substances in the off season, in remote locations that are difficult for doping control officers to access. 

Such scenarios appear to have played out in the past use of ‘closed cities’ by Russian athletes, and by training in remote locations. OOC testing is important not only to remove the perception of immunity for any potential dopers who take this path, but also to remove suspicion that anyone who uses such training locations is doing so for nefarious purposes. 

Looking at the WADA 2017 testing figures, it is not hard to see how Howman came to the conclusion that the testing regime is only catching the“dopey dopers”. It would appear that the “dopey dopers” are non-elite athletes that use substances that are easily detectable in urine during competition, and do not have the financial resources to argue their case.

As Howman realised in 2013, an intelligent doper would not go down that route. Unfortunately, WADA’s 2017 testing figures appear to show that little has changed.

• This article is the first part of a three-part analysis of WADA’s 2017 Testing Figures Report. It was originally published as ‘Urine results in more AAFs than blood’, however scientists pointed out that urine and blood tests should not be compared. To view analysis of the AAFs reported by substance involved, click here. To view analysis of the samples and AAFs reported by Laboratories in 2017, click here.

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