Thursday, September 20, 2007

Tour de France doping decision is another win for bad science

An arbitration panel has ruled against Floyd Landis' appeal to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's charges that he used illegal testosterone in winning the 2006 Tour de France.

The panel voted 2-1 to find Landis guilty of doping, meaning he must forfeit his title to the Tour de France and face a 2-year ban from cycling.

The only person who knows for certain whether Landis doped is Landis himself. It's out of character for him and I want to believe that he didn't use testosterone. But even if he did, the result of the vicious legal battle in this case reveals that the science of USADA's system for detecting dopers is terribly flawed, unreliable and should be immediately remedied, particularly in light of how speculation about doping has damaged the sport of cycling in the public's eye.

Even the two panel members who voted to find Landis guilty were troubled by USADA's sloppy procedures.

"The Panel finds that the practises of the Lab in training its employees appears to lack the vigor the Panel would expect in the circumstances given the enormous consequences to athletes" of an adverse analytical finding, they stated in their decision. "If such practises continue, it may well be that in the future, an error like this could result in the dismissal" of a positive finding by the lab.

Importantly, the initial screening test used on Landis' sample --something called the testosterone-to-epitestosterone test -- was not done properly.

Chris Campbell, the lone dissenting arbitrator who voted to find Landis not guilty, noted that this initial T-E test is much simpler to perform than the follow-up test, called IRMS, which was relied upon to find Landis guilty.

"If the LNDD (the lab that performed the tests) couldn't get the T-E ratio test right, how can a person have any confidence that LNDD got the much more complicated IRMS test correct?" Campbell wrote.

But the authorities overseeing cycling and USADA appeared unfazed by the shoddy testing system, so busy were they jubilantly celebrating the conviction of a man who very well be innocent for all we can tell from the scientific facts of the case.

Pat McQuaid, leader of UCI, the cycling's world governing body, even criticized Landis' use of science to defend himself. "He got a highly qualified legal team who tried to baffle everybody with science."

You may find science baffling, Mr. McQuaid, but how else should we determine who's doped and who hasn't? Should we resort to the flip of a coin? Unless improvements are made to USADA's testing, this might actually be more accurate.

USADA CEO Travis Tygart said, "Today's ruling is a victory for all clean athletes and everyone who values fair and honest competition."

Tygart couldn't be further off the mark. Clean athletes should have the confidence that their test results will come back negative, and as it stands now, there's no assurance of that at all.

If Tygart really wanted to ensure "fair and honest competition," he'd be taking steps to improve the shoddy science that seems to pervade the USADA's testing system. Until that happens, we have to assume the only thing USADA is interested in is finding positive results, regardless of whether the cyclist actually doped or not. That's not good for cycling, the individual athletes or the public's perception of the sport.

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