The new tool that measures blood and body chemistry over time appears to finally be putting a dent in sports doping.
- A new "biological passport" measures blood and body chemistry over time to nab doping.
- The tech just allowed authorities to detect doping in a top Italian cyclist days before a big race.
- The passport looks for changes in a rider's established baseline that might result from doping.
The contest between athletes who use performance-enhancing drugs and the authorities trying to catch them is much like a race itself. Each time a new drug test comes out, athletes and their doctors figure out a way to outsmart it.
But a new "biological passport" that measures blood and body chemistry over time may finally be putting a dent in sports doping.
Professional cycling is the first sport to embrace the relatively new test, and it's just nabbed its biggest catch: an Italian cyclist, Franco Pellizotti, who was one of the favorites to win this year's Giro d'Italia. The Giro d-Italia, a grueling three-week event second in size and importance only to the Tour de France, kicks off on Saturday.
"It's another tool to find those who are doping and protect those who are clean," said David Howman, director of the World Anti-Doping Association in Montreal. "Its a significant step for the fight against doping."
Instead of relying on random drug tests, which check the ratio between biological constituents in a single sample, or for direct evidence of known doping agents, the biological passport allows investigators to see the big picture. It looks for changes in a rider's established baseline that might result from doping, even if the specific drug or tactic remains unknown.
Drugs like erythropoitein (EPO), which was developed to help anemia patients, can only be detected for three days, but the performance benefits last for weeks, according to Charles Pelkey, senior editor at VeloNews magazine. "A lot of times a rider will produce suspicious blood profiles, but won't trip the positive on doping tests," Pelkey said.
Earlier this year, 23 pro cyclists were nabbed by the biological passport, which was adopted by the sport's governing body the International Cycling Union (UCI) this season. About 800 pro riders who race in Europe take part in the biological passport program.
On Monday, the UCI announced another four riders were busted, including Franco Pellizotti, runner-up in last year's Giro and winner of the prestigious polka-dot jersey for best mountain climber in last year's Tour de France.
Pellizotti denied doping and said the suspicious results were from dehydration. Authorities kicked him out of the race.
Cross-country skiing, speed skating, swimming and track and field are are expected to make the biological passport mandatory soon. Some experts even think it could be applied in the workplace to test airline pilots, police officers or others who now submit to random drug screens.
Niiler is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC.