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Doping problem in canoe/kayak worse than reported

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Two-thirds of all doping violations in Olympic disciplines have come from three sports: track and field, weightlifting and cycling. Canoe/kayak is one of the smaller offenders. Source: Washington Post.

By Bill Endicott - July 11, 2016


The doping problem in sports generally and in canoe/kayak specifically is worse than reported in my Sportscene.tv piece of June 1.  More athletes and entire federations, including the Romanian canoe/kayak federation, have now been banned from international competition because of doping.   Many of the organizations now charged with drug testing are incapable or unwilling to do the job right. New drugs are coming on line which current tests cannot detect.

Yet there is some cause for optimism that the situation could be made better in the future if key hurdles can be surmounted.  The biggest hurdle is political will; taking drug testing out of the hands of those doing it dishonestly now and putting it into the hands of those willing to do it honestly. 

The second biggest hurdle is improving the methods for detecting drug cheats.  This includes developing better scientific tests to detect doping and enlisting more countries’ legal systems in prosecuting drug peddlers and sending them to jail.  In theory both can be done.

The final hurdle is finding the money to pay for all this.  Presumably the public will ultimately provide the funds in the form of higher taxes for governments contributing to solving the doping problem and in the form of more costly goods as sponsors pass on to consumers the costs of sponsor contributions.  The public will also pay in terms of police and government prosecutors spending time on doping in sports instead of combatting other forms of crime that more directly affect the wider public.

While it’s probably not realistic to believe doping will ever be completely eliminated from sport, it is realistic to think it’s possible to make the situation better than it has ever has been.

canoe kayak paddlesports drugs doping performance enhancing problem sportscene icf


Since the publication of my piece on the Sportscene website on June 1, the following new information has come to light:

  • DOMBVARI,  Bence, Hungary.  He has won silver and bronze medals in world championships.  In 2015 he was banned for 10 months for cocaine.  On July 5, 2016 the Hungarian canoe/kayak federation announced an athlete, alleged by newspapers to be Dombvari, had failed a drug test for the steroid stanozolol.  But as of this writing there was no confirmation of guilt and no announcement of an official ban.
  • WHOLE ROMANIAN CANOE KAYAK TEAM BANNED FROM RIO OLYMPICS.  The news is full of stories about the whole Russian track and field team being banned from Rio.  But two other national teams have also been banned that haven’t been getting much press attention: the whole Bulgarian weightlifting team -- and the whole Romanian canoe-kayak team.
  • NUMBER OF PADDLESPORTS DOPERS HIGHER. At least 35 paddlesports athletes, not the 31 reported on June 1, have been banned from international competition in recent years due to doping violations. The new additions are:
  • DUDAS, Miklos, Hungary. He won a gold medal at the 2015 European Games in Baku in the men’s 200m.  But it was reported in April of 2016 that he had a positive drug test so the Hungarian Canoe Federation banned him for an unknown period. 
  • KIHAYEV, Yuriy, Ukraine. He was the 2014 World Champion in paracanoe in the 2014 men’s K1 (LTA) 200m event, and was disqualified in 2015 for doping.  
  • SETKIN, Kiril, Russia.  He was the 2010 C1 Junior World Champion in whitewater slalom.  RUSADA, the Russian anti-doping agency, suspended him for 6 months in September, 2012 for a doping violation.


In addition, according to the May 26 edition of France’s Le Monde newspaper, on April 12, during a training camp in La Temple-sur-Lot, France, at least 6 Belarussian canoeists failed a French anti-doping drug test for meldonium. Included in this group were Alexander and Andrei Bahdanovich, 2008 C2 1000 meter Olympic champions, and 2012 silver medalists.  The other 4, who were not part of the Olympic team, were canoeists Maxim Pyatrou, Alyaksandr Lyapeshka and Alexander and Dzmitry Silchanka.  As of this writing it was unclear whether these athletes have been banned from international competition or not.

  • WADA ACCUSED OF CONFLICT OF INTEREST.  On June 15, the New York Times ran a story saying that the World Anti-Doping Agency  (WADA) itself is so riddled with conflict of interest that it cannot do its job properly.   As evidence of this, the story says that as early as 2012 WADA received an in-depth, credible tip from the Russian discuss thrower, Darya Pishchalnilkova, admitting widespread organized Russian team doping in the London Olympics. 

But WADA did not begin an inquiry, the story says, even though a staff lawyer circulated a message to three top officials, calling the accusations “relatively precise,” including names and facts.

Even worse, not only did WADA do nothing to stop the doping, it alerted Russian officials to Pishchalnikova’s claims, something that could potentially put her in harm’s way.

Furthermore, Britain’s Sunday Times says WADA had ample knowledge about Russian doping even earlier than that.  The Sunday Times reported that as early as 2010, Vitaly Stepanov, who worked for Russia’s anti-doping agency, began giving WADA information about an elaborate, state-run doping program, urging WADA to stop it, but was frustrated because WADA did nothing.  He was assisted in his efforts by his wife Yuliya Rusanova, a Russian middle-distance runner, who told him about her doping regimen.  In all, Stepanov sent some 200 emails to WADA telling them everything he knew.

It was only when the evidence grew so overwhelming that WADA had to act.  For example, only after the German ARD tv exposé  on widespread doping in Russian sports, and the bombshell from Grigory Rodchenkov, head of RUSADA’s drug testing lab, admitting he routinely covered up positive tests in his 10 years there -- did WADA recommend banning Russia’s track and field team from international competition.

WADA’s slowness to act has brought into the open growing distrust among athletes and administrators that WADA is so beset by internal politics that it cannot fulfill its mission.

The allegation is that because WADA is composed of government and Olympic representatives, it is full of conflict of interest.   Namely, the allegation is that Olympic officials are not be inclined to reveal doping transgressions that could mar the integrity of the Games and government officials are more inclined to neutralize their own countries’ drug testing for nationalistic reasons.

The New York Times story goes on to say that Dr. Arne Ljungqvist, WADA vice president from 2008-2013, and a former medical commissioner for the IOC and the governing body for track and field, said he repeatedly raised concerns about Russia for years.  And while WADA did consider sanctions against Russia, in the end, he said, conflict of interests within WADA and the Olympic movement prevented any action being taken.   “It was too politically infected,” Ljungqvist said.

INSUFFICIENT SCIENCE.  It turns out that one of the big problems in evaluating the doping debate is that the science about it is incomplete.

Take anabolic steroids.  About half of doping violations involve some kind of steroid abuse, so it’s the biggest part of the doping debate.  While there is significant  research on the immediate effects of anabolic steroids -- they help performance -- there is very little substantial research on the long-term health effects.  Anabolic steroid studies are small in sample size, and very few are long-term.

Because of this the scientific community cannot say whether there is a “safe dose” for drug use or whether drug use will necessarily lead to health problems.  So the evidence cited is anecdotal evidence, not real scientific evidence.

According to Dr. Norman Fost of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine, and a practicing pediatrician and expert in medical ethics, “You see all these reports that steroids cause heart disease, cancer, strokes and so on.  Then it gets repeated over and over again. There is not a single study out there that proves steroids cause any of these diseases.”

So, to get information about the long term effects of doping you have to go to the body building world or to people in sports who have doped and ask them about it.  And they will tell you, yes, doping improves performance, and yes, if you know what you’re doing, it’s safe.

But then if you go to other people, they will tell you horror stories about athletes who have allegedly died young due to doping or suffered terrible consequences because of it.

When you have to go underground like this to get information, there’s always the danger that you’ll get bad information, or misleading information.

Bottom line: the reasons cited for and against the health risks of doping are usually based on anecdote, not science.

  • BANNED ATHLETES COULD STILL BENEFIT FROM DOPING YEARS AFTER BAN EXPIRES.  Research by University of Oslo scientists claims that muscles can retain the advantages of anabolic steroids decades after the steroid use stopped.  It’s an argument for banning athletes convicted of doping for much longer periods.

Kristian Gundersen, Professor of Physiology at the University of Oslo, who conducted the research in October 2013, told BBC Sport: "I think it is likely that effects could be lifelong or at least lasting decades in humans. Our data indicates the exclusion time of two years is far too short. Even four years is too short."

I was excited by the clarity of the findings. It's very rare, at least in my  experience, that the data are so clear cut; there is usually some  disturbing factor. But in this case it was extremely clear.

If you exercise, or take anabolic steroids, you get more nuclei and you  get bigger muscles. If you take away the steroids, you lose the muscle  mass, but the nuclei remain inside the muscle fibres.  They are like  temporarily closed factories, ready to start producing protein again  when you start exercising again.

A possible criticism of the Gunderson study is that it was done on mice, not on humans.  But Gunderson replies: "I would be very surprised if there were any major differences between humans and mice in this context. The fundamental biology of muscle growth is similar in humans and in mice, and in principle any drug that builds muscle mass could trigger this mechanism.”

  • THERE’S ORGANIZED CRIME IN SPORTS DOPING.  According to outgoing WADA director general David Howman, not only is organized crime involved in doping, the problem is getting "bigger and more serious" and is "getting too big for sport to manage.” As a result Howman has called for a new “sports integrity unit” with WADA as part of it, that would combat doping, match-fixing, corrupt betting and other forms of cheating increasingly linked to global organized crime and liaise with law enforcement agencies around the world.  WADA already cooperates with Interpol on such matters and Interpol was involved in catching Lance Armstrong.
  • NEW FORMS OF DOPING COMING.  According to several news reports, in the doping arms race with both sides engaging more and more deeply in science, here are 4 of the new doping mechanisms that are supposedly coming next:

1. Gene Doping.  This approach potentially does an end run around conventional tests for drugs or foreign products in the bloodstream because it alters an athlete’s own DNA to produce performance-enhancing substances.

It’s in the testing stage now, but if effective, it could endow a patient—or athlete—with a gene that produced extra erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone that spurs the production of red blood cells.  Sports officials say that to date there’s no evidence any athlete has undergone gene doping, but they also think it’s only a matter of time.

2.  Oxygen in a pill.   This is a new substance to replace EPO, called  FG-4592/ASP1517. (No trade name yet because it’s not on the market yet.)  It’s made by 2 pharmaceutical companies, FibroGen and Astellas. Between them, they’ve developed a pill that can be used for the treatment of anemia with a particular focus at present on anemia associated with chronic kidney disease.

But the drug could also be used by athletes, in much the same way EPO has been used in the past. That is, to potentially increase their red blood cell count, thereby improving oxygen transport to the muscles and potentially creating a boost in aerobic sports performance.

In fact, FG-4592/ASP1517 is said to be potentially better than EPO in several ways. Not only can FG-4592/ASP1517 do almost everything EPO can do, clinical trials have suggested it may have a better “safety profile” than EPO.  More specifically, no heart or blood pressure issues have been observed in trials thus far. Furthermore, FG-4592/ASP1517 is available in a pill form and does not have to be injected into the body.

Even though the drug hasn’t been officially approved yet, reports are that FG-4592/ASP1517 is readily available for purchase online as a “research chemical” and would cost an athlete about $3,000 for one cycle of treatment.

3.  Selective Androgen Receptor Modulators (SARMs).  Unlike with testosterone and other anabolic steroids, the action of SARMs is restricted to muscle, likely limiting the side effects.  SARMs work similarly to testosterone but in a more targeted way.  They are not steroid drugs, but they produce the anabolic effect of the steroids.  They’re being developed for muscle-wasting diseases but they can significantly boost lean muscle mass in other people.

4.  Myostatin Inhibitors.  As with SARMS, the action of myostatin inhibitors is restricted to muscle, likely limiting side effects.  It blocks myostatin, a naturally occurring protein in the body that stops growth of skeletal muscle.  Tests have already proven that myostatin inhibitors can build muscle mass in animals by 60%, but it’s not yet clear how well they will work on humans.

WADA is reportedly working to develop detection methods for both SARMs and myostatin inhibitors.

5.  Brain Doping.  This is the process of using electrical stimulation to the brain to improve concentration, increase the ability to learn new skills and reduce the perception of fatigue.  So far there is no way to detect whether an athlete has been doing this.   

  • CONSENSUS FOR MORE AND BETTER DRUG TESTING.  Of all the alternatives posed for what to do about doping, the consensus seems to be for more and better drug testing rather than the other extreme of legalizing doping.   Increased drug testing is what they’re doing in cycling and track and field, where the doping problem is worse than in canoeing and kayaking and  it seems likely that other sports including canoeing and kayaking will try to follow that lead.

Despite increasing numbers of sports scientists, theorists, and ethicists advocating legalizing drugs, there doesn't seem to be any move in that direction in cycling and track and field.  So, as a practical matter, that option seems off the table.   There may be some logic behind it, but politically, emotionally, it's not acceptable.  Most people want to believe it’s still possible to eliminate doping from sports and want to keep trying.

Scientists seem to agree that in-competition testing is not sufficient to catch dopers and that in addition, unannounced out-of-competition testing is necessary.  That’s the basis for the biological passport; the athlete undergoes testing 5-6 times during the year to build up a record of his/her biological markers.  (See details at https://wada-main-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/resources/files/wada-abp-operating-guidelines-v5.0-en.pdf.)  And then when a test shows that any one marker is way out of whack, it’s presumed the athlete has doped.  This is what cycling and track and field have chosen to implement.

The problem is that biological passports cost a great deal.  Although it’s hard to get really authoritative estimates, some sources say it’s about $6,000 per athlete per year.   Maybe there’s enough money in cycling and track and field to pay for that but it would be more difficult for canoe-kayak.

Say, for example, because you wanted to save money in canoeing and kayaking, you wanted just the athletes in slalom and sprint to have a biological passport instead of the athletes in all paddlesports.  To reduce cost even more, in sprint you could require it just for some finalists from World Championships, as follows:

K1 200  x 9
K1 1000 x 9
C1  200 x 5
C1 1000 x 5
K1W 200 x 5
K1W 500 x 5

You’d have 38 athletes @ $6,000 each = $228,000

Then you could add the following from slalom:

K1 x 8
C1 x 5
K1W x 5
C1W x 5

That’s 23 more athletes at $138,000.

That’s  $366,000 just for slalom and sprint per year.  It doesn’t include paracanoe, marathon, or any of the other paddlesports disciplines. 

So, if canoe/kayak cannot afford $366,000 annually, then it will have to reduce the number of athletes required to have biological passports.  That will mean picking winners and losers; potential medal winners would have to have it, but non-potential medal winners would not.

In addition to the biological passports for top finishers, random testing for all other international racers would have to continue to ensure that no one doped up until the point when they got biological passports.

  • INCREASED USE OF COUNTRIES’ LEGAL SYSTEMS TO PROSECUTE DOPE SELLERS.   As of this writing, according to the New York Times, the U.S. Justice Department has opened an investigation into state-sponsored doping by dozens of Russia’s top athletes.  The inquiry now turns what has been just a big sports controversy into a federal criminal case involving foreign officials.

US Federal courts have allowed prosecutors to bring cases against foreigners living abroad if there is some connection to the United States and the fact that Russian athletes have competed in the United States is part of the alleged connection.

European countries have been doing this sort of thing even more vigorously.  Earlier this year, the German government passed draft legislation that would make it illegal for athletes to use performance-enhancing drugs inside Germany's borders. It is thought that the legislation will go before the Bundestag, the German parliament, and become law later this year. When it passes, Germany will join a growing list of countries—like France, Italy, and Austria—that have criminalized doping. Even foreign athletes who test positive inside Germany could face jail time.

Another example is the Lance Armstrong case.  In that one, Interpol, the international police organization that helps authorities from different countries work together on investigations, helped US legal officials bring Lance down.

  • THERE’S NO ONE GOOD SOLUTION.  No matter what you do about doping, it seems that you’re going to hurt athletes.  It’s just a case of picking the least bad solution.  If you leave things the way they are now -- the cat and mouse game in which dopers are always one step ahead of the testors -- you’re going to hurt athletes who are clean because the playing field won’t be level. 

If you engage more fully in an escalating arms race to finally end doping, there will have to be more extensive drug testing, which will be increasingly intrusive and inconvenient for athletes as well as being increasingly costly for the folks who have to pay for it.  And even then the playing field may not be level -- but it might be more level than it is now.

If you legalize drugs you either force athletes who want to be clean to dope, or drive them out of sport because they think they don’t have a chance to win if they stay clean.

  • PUT DRUG TESTING IN HONEST HANDS.  This part of the debate is a no-brainer.  There’s no sense in having really good drug testing if you don’t have people administering it honestly.  So this is clearly the first and most important step in combatting doping.  But it means you’re going to have to take drug testing out of the hands of certain NADOs thought to be dishonest, at least until they reform.  And it even seems as though WADA itself needs to be restructured so there is no conflict of interest in overseeing the battle against doping. 
  • THE PUBLIC PAYS THE COST.   The aforementioned reforms will all require more money.   Presumably governments will have to pay for a lot of it and that means raising taxes or fees.  Same thing for sponsors; they’ll probably be called on to help pay, and they’ll pass along the costs to consumers in the form of higher prices for their goods.  And the more time countries’ legal systems spend on sending drug cheats to jail instead of on other things that more directly affect the public (like catching terrorists) the more the public pays.  
  • CONTINUING DOPING SCANDALS.   We’re probably going to have to live with occasional doping scandals.  This is because for some time to come cheats will be producing new ways to dope that will work until a new test is developed to catch them.  That and smaller cheaters will be offered lighter sentences if they “turn state’s evidence” and testify against bigger cheaters and that will be in the news.

Not only are individual athletes going to be banned and maybe for longer periods, but more national federations may be temporarily banned from the Olympics if corruption charges are successfully brought against them.   There may even be increasing scandals relating to organized crime in doping with prosecutions in the legal system resulting in jail terms.

  • PUBLIC PERCEPTION.  A key to dealing with all this will be preventing adverse publicity about the doping problem from creating such cynicism that it permanently hurts elite sport.  Perhaps the best argument is  "Yes, the situation’s not perfect, but it's better than it was." 

According to Victor Conte, jailed for selling dope in the 2003 Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO) scandal, the situation is already better now than it was in the 1980s when the state-sponsored East German doping system was in effect and we didn’t know it.  Conte says evidence of this statement is found in the fact that some records set in the 1980s still stand today even with all the alleged doping that’s going on today.  Why? Because in the 1980s the power of the drugs used then was far greater than it is now.   So at least that’s an improvement.

In other words, we may have to have an “attitude adjustment.” Yes, it’s true that sport and especially the Olympics, were supposed to be special, better than regular life, and there was supposed to be a special code of ethics, originally the “amateur code,” where athletes were on their honor not to cheat. 

But with the increasing prizes and prestige from winning the Olympics and human nature being what it is, there will inevitably be a temptation to cheat in Olympic sports just as there is in other walks of life.  This means more policing is necessary in Olympic sports just as in the other walks of life.   And maybe that’s not the end of the world.

Initiative of the World Paddle Awards written by Bill Endicott, member of the World Paddle Awards Academy.