26 October 2017

WADA 2016 Test Figures P1: Blood tests are not catching dopers

Blood tests are not catching dopers, analysis of the 2016 Anti-Doping Testing Figures Report published by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has revealed. In 2016, the total number of adverse analytical findings (AAF) reported from in-competition blood tests amongst Summer and Winter Olympic sports was just 17 from 3,200 tests performed (0.5%). Out of competition, the results were even worse. Just 11 AAFs resulted from 12,443 tests performed (0.09%).

Football conducted 1,322 blood tests out of competition and 407 in competition without reporting a single AAF. Likewise, tennis collected 790 blood samples out of competition and 183 in competition without reporting a single positive.

In Athletics, just four AAFs were recorded for 2,413 blood tests taken out of competition (0.17%); and five AAFs were recorded for 530 blood tests taken in competition (0.94%). In cycling, two AAFs were recorded for 1,486 blood tests taken out of competition (0.13%); but 12 AAFs were recorded from the 825 blood tests recorded in competition (1.45%).

By way of comparison, in competition urine tests produced 1,352 AAFs amongst Summer and Winter Olympic Sports, 1.33% of the 101,413 samples analysed. Out of competition urine tests returned 547 AAFs from the 76,289 samples analysed (0.72%).

The number of blood tests that result in an anti-doping rule violation (ADRV) is likely to be even lower, as an AAF only indicates a positive doping test. After an athlete is notified about an AAF, they are afforded an opportunity to give an explanation for how a prohibited substance ended up in their system. This can include Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUE) to use prohibited substances for medical reasons. If that explanation is not forthcoming or is not credible, only then is an ADRV is brought forward against the athlete. In a statement issued yesterday, WADA said that its 2016 ADRV Report would be published next year.

Blood tests are necessary as part of the Athlete Biological Passport (ABP), however these are recorded in a separate part of the WADA Report (p288-323). The ABP requires blood to be taken from athletes over time, which is then monitored for fluctuations that could indicate doping. A total of 28,173 ABP samples were analysed in 2016, up 13% from the 25,012 analysed during 2015. This is a much higher number than the 15,643 blood tests WADA lists as being conducted by sport.

Wrestling & Boxing top AAF charts

Wrestling and boxing reported the highest percentage of AAFs amongst the summer and winter Olympic sports. Only one Olympic sport – curling – didn’t report an AAF during 2016 (Luge reported just one AAF).

The table on the right lists the summer and winter Olympic sports that reported over 1,000 samples taken during 2016, ranked by the percentage of AAFs as compared to samples. This explanation is a complicated way of saying that it ranks the sports by the percentage of samples that result in an AAF. Sports where less than 1,000 samples were collected were excluded from the ranking, as it was thought that AAFs where small sample numbers were collected might skew the results (in fact this wasn’t the case, as this full table illustrates).

Regardless of the number of samples taken, WADA reported that 2,151 AAFs were recorded from 193,345 samples collected (1.11%) from athletes competing in summer and winter Olympic sports. The number of AAFs that result in an anti-doping rule violation (ADRV) are likely to be lower than the AAF figures, as an AAF only indicates a positive doping test.

WADA’s statement pointed to an increase in the number of AAFs from 3,809 from 303,369 samples (1.26%) in 2015 to 4,822 AAFs from 300,565 samples (1.6%) in 2016. ‘The higher number of AAFs are partly related to the reported cases of Meldonium – a substance that was first added to the 2016 Prohibited List’, WADA points out in its Executive Summary of the Report. Anyone familiar with meldonium’s chaotic addition to the 2016 Prohibited List, as well as the abandonment of many attempted sanctions against athletes, could argue that this is an odd victory to claim.

As the eagle-eyed will have spotted, this also means that the number of samples analysed in 2016 fell by 2,804 between 2015 and 2016. This is a concern during an Olympic year.

Football’s figures show that just 168 AAFs resulted from the 33,327 tests conducted (0.5%). This either means that there is low doping prevalence in football, as its governing auatoiries have consistently claimed, or that its tests are not effective.

Of the 1,324 samples collected in bodybuilding, 19% (253) returned an AAF. Interestingly, Dragon Boat also returned 3 AAFs from 45 samples collected (7%); and 33 of the 517 samples collected in kickboxing (6.4%) returned an AAF. The traditional Indian sport of Kabaddi also reported 21 AAFs from 267 samples (7.9%).

An effective deterrent?

WADA and ADOs have consistently argued that both urine and blood testing both in and out of competition is not only necessary to catch dopers, but as a deterrent to would-be dopers. Unfortunately, it is impossible to measure the effectiveness of such a deterrent.

However, blood tests are more expensive than urine tests. If blood tests are failing to result in any AAFs, then questions need to be asked about whether they represent an effective deterrent. Especially if they can be replaced by urine tests, which are cheaper and appear more effective.

It is also concerning that the number of AAFs remains at 1.6% of samples collected (bolstered by meldonium’s addition to the Prohibited List). The percentage of ADRVs related to samples collected is likely to be lower than this, due to athlete explanations and the number of meldonium cases that failed.

Prevalence studies put the number of athletes that are doping as much higher than this. In 2015, the UK Parliament published the ’Tübingen study’, which suggested that as many as 45% of 2,163 athletes may have doped in 2011. Its authors later claimed that the IAAF had actively attempted to block its publication. With such disparity between positive tests and apparent doping prevalence, perhaps it is time to ask whether the testing system is tackling doping, or managing it.

• Analysis of the Laboratory Testing Figures from the WADA 2016 Anti-Doping Testing Figures Report is available here. Analysis of the most common substances to return an AAF is available here.

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