Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Supplements and anti-doping

With a few high profile doping cases recently gone through appeals hearings, now is a good time to revisit the area of anti-doping, particularly in relation to adverse findings as the result of contaminated supplements.

Strict Liability
The first point to reiterate is the notion of strict liability.  This means that the athlete alone if responsible for what is found in their bodies.  There have been a number of cases where athletes have failed drug tests without knowingly taking a banned performance enhancing substance.  The consequences in these cases, if a non-specified substance (generally substances which have limited performance enhancing benefits), is, by default, a two year ban, which in some cases gets reduced to 6 months.

Why do Supplements Carry a Risk?
Food supplements are not subject to the very strict monitoring that medical drugs are.  Because of this, they can contain just about anything!
  • They can contain substances that are not listed on the label.
  • Substances can be named under a very different name to that which appears on the WADA code
  • They can be manufactured in the same factories as products which contain banned substances, and become contaminated.
  • Products say that they are 'approved' and athletes believe that that makes them ok to take.
  • The 'sports nutrition' industry is a lucrative business. They give products to high performance athletes in return for endorsement.  Athletes like getting free stuff, and all of a sudden the perception is that you can't perform without taking a range of products.
Current Position

Until recently, the advice from UKAD was not to take any supplements.  That made life a lot easier from the perspective of the Anti-doping advisor perspective. You could just tell an athlete that the advice was not to take anything, and then they could choose to heed that advice or not.  Things have changed in recent years, and while UKAD cannot endorse any products, they now give advice based on the likelihood that athletes are going to take supplements anyway, and the current approach is based on risk reduction rather than elimination.  This is fine, and their advice is sound, but in the absence of any information relating to products (or types of products) which carry a high risk, have been linked with positive tests in the past, or which contain banned substances, it's very difficult to hammer home to athletes just how seriously they should be taking the whole matter.  In the ten or so years that I have been involved in advising athletes, the only product I have really seen named is JACK3D, a product which is now banned for sale in the UK and Ireland ...

Positive Moves
... Or at least that was until I saw this recent announcement from the Australian anti-doping body.  In it they name three products which have been shown to contain banned substances, and advise against certain groups of supplements.  They recommend taking special care with weight-loss supplements and with supplements claiming to improve mental performance.  This level of information is very useful when educating athletes.

I have also since noticed that the body responsible for anti-doping in the US (USADA) has a list of high risk supplements - details of supplements which either list banned supplements or have been found to contain banned substances.  Of course this list is by no means complete, but can give some indication to athletes the level of precaution they need to take.  The list includes Ephany D1, the vitamin/mineral/herbal supplement which was blamed for Asafa Powell's failed drug test.

Removing some of the Grey Areas
I find it bizarre why athletes would need to take weight-loss supplements, or to 'get them up' for training or competition.  A wise man - the man who thought me everything I know about athletics - once (or 100 times) told us that if it doesn't work, it's a waste of money and if it does work, it's probably illegal. While this may not be completely true, it's been a good motto to live by.  For me, anti-doping has nothing to do with being caught.  I would hate to look back in a few years and not be able to say that what I achieved in sport, no matter how pitiful, was 100% me.  For me, too many grey areas are created by our fixation on rules and what you can get away with.  Performing clean should be about much more than that.

What Athletes Should Do
Consider the need - Despite the claims, few food supplements actually legally help improve performance, and none make up for poor nutrition.  Consider what changes you can make to your diet, before you resort to any nutritional supplement.  Only take supplements that you actually need.

Consider the risks and the consequences - Some of the risks associated with nutritional supplements are listed above.  From January 2015, first-time doping offences, where there was an intention to cheat, will result in a 4 year ban. The onus will shift to the athlete to prove that there was no intention to cheat.  It is highly likely that more inadvertent doping offences for non-specified substances than before will result in 2 year bans. But think beyond the bans and tangible consequences of inadvertently using a supplement that's found to contain a banned substance.  Consider how you would feel if someone told you that that harmless looking 'endurance enhancer' that you have been using for the last 2 years contains EPO, and that your performances have been artificially enhanced, or that the 'herbal' supplement that you have been using to help shift a few pounds actually contains amphetamines, and has been damaging your health.

Do what you can to reduce the risk - While no anti-doping body can 100% guarantee that a produce does not contain a banned substance, some products sign up to undergo rigorous testing, and those which have not been found to contain substances are listed on sites such as Informed-Sport.  
  • Check that any products that you plan on using have undergone this testing.  
  • Check what other products are made by the same company/in the same factory - there is an increased risk of contamination if made in the same factory as products which contain banned substances.  
  • Do some online research to see if the product has been linked with any doping cases in the past.  
  • Check any active ingredients against drug databases (Global Dro in UK; Eirpharm in Ireland).
  • Keep all packets and samples of the product, so it can be tested if you have a case to answer.
  • If you are chosen for a test, ensure that you list all products that you are taking on the doping declaration form.  It's very difficult to claim that the adverse finding was for a supplement that you hadn't declared you were using.

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