Cricket’s doping crisis hasn’t arrived yet

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At the tip of the needle (CC licensed by tschoppi via Flickr)

This week’s edition of The Spin reports that the ICC “stepped up” its dope testing at this year’s Champions Trophy when it started conducting blood tests.

As someone who spends a significant proportion of his working life reading about the shortcomings of even blood testing, the idea that a sport would rely solely on what it could find in athletes’ urine as a testing method seems not too far removed from dunking them in water to see whether they float or asking them to read scripture out loud to see whether they stumble.

Chances are a few people have managed to beat the testers.

There’s a suggestion now that cricket might introduce the Athlete Biological Passport – an electronic record of various biological markers within an individual, tracked over time. This can reveal the effects of doping without detection of the substance (or method) used.

If they do, expect a whole bunch of people to get caught. Huge financial rewards plus lack of any real scrutiny tends to equal a bit of open-minded medical experimentation from a small percentage of athletes.

The Spin goes on to point out that T20 has led to greater emphasis on strength and power. This was a point we made in March last year when it was announced that Andre Russell might face a ban for missing dope tests and the same conclusion is drawn – that baseball provides an obvious rebuttal to the argument that cricket, as a game of skill, isn’t vulnerable to doping.

Cricket is vulnerable, has been for a while, and the authorities are playing catch-up. They aren’t even catching up that quickly. Let’s look at the two most high profile nations.

The Quint reports that in India 138 in-competition tests were carried out in 2016 and just 15 out-of-competition tests. Out of competition is when doping is more likely to take place, as this is when players are in the gym looking to make physical improvements or are recovering from injury.

In the UK, Elizabeth Ammon reports in The Times that 102 in-competition tests were carried out on male cricketers in the 12 months to March this year, plus 28 out-of-competition tests. No tests were carried out on female cricketers.

World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) figures for 2016 state that 1,164 tests were carried out worldwide. Only 31 of these were out-of-competition tests (this may exclude the India figures above, as the doping agency operating in cricket there has an unusual relationship with Wada).

To put that in context, fencing conducted 1,618 tests, canoeing conducted 4,196 tests and football conducted 33,227 tests. 130 tests were carried out in boules. Road cycling – a discipline with just a few hundred professionals – conducted over 13,000 tests. (It even tests 60-year-olds who finish 95th in amateur races.)

Several other sports undertake similarly half-arsed regimes to cricket, but that doesn’t change the fact that the sport has a sizeable blind spot.

The Spin’s headline “Is cricket a doping-free zone or has anyone been looking hard enough?” is presumably rhetorical. No-one has been looking particularly hard because no-one wants to deal with what they would find.


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  1. ‘As someone who spends a significant proportion of his working life reading about the shortcomings of blood testing’

    Where do you work? I’m picturing Dracula’s lair.

  2. “130 tests were carried out in boules. ”

    That’s really quite something.

    “Road cycling … even tests 60-year-olds who finish 95th in amateur races”

    Yep. Middle-aged chap in a place I’ve lived got done it in an amateur race. By profession, runs a cycling shop and used his amateur racing career to build up reputation/profile of the business side, so I really have no sympathy. But even when there is no commercial angle to it, amateur cycling seems to come with a surprisingly competitive mentality, They race as if they think they are, in their heads at least, pros.

    “Out of competition is when doping is more likely to take place, as this is when players are in the gym looking to make physical improvements or are recovering from injury.”

    Quite. If they aren’t being tested out of competition, then it’s almost as bad as not testing them at all. But out-of-competition tests bring difficulties like players having to provide day-by-day location data to officials – in India that is treated as posing a security risk.

    “T20 has led to greater emphasis on strength and power. This was a point we made in March last year … baseball provides an obvious rebuttal to the argument that cricket, as a game of skill, isn’t vulnerable to doping.”

    Yes, yes, yes. you were right then. You’re right still.

    For me the problem is less that I hate the idea of watching my heroes smashing the ball about then feeling let down and turned off the game when it turns out they were cheaters, though that ought to be a commercial worry for the authorities. It’s more that I don’t want vulnerable young cricketers on the cusp of a pro career to feel like they need to stick a potentially very harmful cocktail of chemicals down themselves to have a chance at “making it”.

    1. India’s cricketers do actually provide ‘whereabouts’ information. That was a sticking point a few years ago, but has since been addressed.

      1. When the ICC signed the WADA code in 2006, the BCCI was one of the first boards to object strongly to the whereabouts clause, which allows out-of-competition testing to be done without prior notice. That meant an athlete needed to disclose his location so that officials could visit unannounced to collect samples. But a lot of India’s players were concerned about their security, and consequently the ICC anti-doping code with regards to the whereabouts clause was amended with WADA’s consent.

        Yes, didn’t mean that Indian cricketers don’t have to provide location information, just that it is treated as security-sensitive. But I don’t know how the rules have been changed to accommodate it. Any idea in what way the whereabouts clause works differently for cricketers thanks to the BCCI’s intervention?

  3. I’d like to play a bit of not-necessarily-the-views-of –the author devil’s advocacy here.
    Why do we care if there is doping?
    Is it purely about the welfare of the players? Have those few people who have been caught taking performance enhancing drugs suffered health problems? Do those sports where we strongly suspect but can’t prove widespread drug use have significant incidence of unexplained illness later in life? Does a player have the right to consent to the risk? He/she will make a number of other sacrifices to achieve success, aren’t they entitled to accept a health risk? We allow players to do things which will probably hurt them in later life. Like fast bowling. Aren’t the debilitating effects of joint injuries in later life every bit as debilitating as most drug side effects and far more likely to occur? And what about painkillers? Fast bowlers often say that the virtually lived of over the painkiller dosages far beyond those recommended as safe. In a similar vein to the debates on recreational drugs and prostitution, if the welfare of those involved is our real concern, aren’t they better served by it coming out into the open and being managed?
    Or is our concern “cheating”? Gaining an unfair advantage due to something consumed over someone who doesn’t? Then why are protein drinks (which we all know corrode the soul), hyperbaric oxygen and the aforementioned hand full of ibuprofen allowed? Or steel and titanium surgery? Is a six hit by a steroid enhanced muscle bound player more devalued than one by a conventionally muscle bound one It is only cheating if it is against the rules, so legalise and the playingfield is instantly levelled.
    What would a crack down on drugs achieve? It would ruin a lot of careers, rob us of our heroes and make the likes of us much more unhappy. All for what? Shouldn’t we either accept and embrace doping and try to mitigate its side effects, or continue to look the other way. Isn’t a crack down the worst of all worlds?

    1. We’d say athlete welfare primarily and sporting fairness secondarily.

      There are definitely health concerns in turning a blind eye. If people pursue illegal medication with a view to being better competitors, there’s a decent chance they’ll do it to excess. Plus, the very nature of what they’re doing is likely to mean they aren’t getting the most responsible medical advice.

      Every drug has its side-effects. The risks of abuse will vary from substance to substance and individual to individual, but to allow a scenario where all sorts of things – some of which are not approved for human use – are being taken and combined would be beyond irresponsible.

      1. Baseball’s crackdown (which, as unpleasant as it was, was probably the right thing to do in hindsight) coincided with this story sweeping across the national consciousness:

        Personally, I don’t see any problem with professional athletes using things like human growth hormone to treat soft-tissue injuries, provided it’s closely regulated by a sport’s governing body. Something like making players ineligible for selection from the time they start treatment until they can pass a blood test might work.

      2. Yes, we’d possibly agree, but managed that way we’re talking about the medical treatment end of the grey area that darkens into out-and-out doping.

      3. A particular problem with PEDs is that if everyone’s on them, you feel like you’ve got to be on them too in order to level the playing field. So I don’t buy the argument that “it’s everyone’s choice what they put into their own bodies, so since athletes are autonomous individuals they should be allowed to do whatever they want”. Because the more of them do it, the more pressure is pushed onto the choices of other athletes – particularly up-and-coming ones trying to get a start in their career, but older ones who don’t want to be cast aside by the new wave will also feel pressurised to recover faster etc.

        Ultimately the choice becomes “stuff yourself with noxious stuff, or give up on the dream altogether” – and what kind of “choice” is that? And as for the choice of how much of the noxious stuff to take, how experimental do you want to be with new products… again, the pressure forms a vicious cycle, taking athletes further and further away from the zone they feel safe or comfortable with, because if they don’t they’ll be left behind.

        If thousands of athletes freely came together and said “look, we genuinely want to stick all kinds of things into our systems because we want to experience the far limit of medically-assisted human possibility; we are informed about the side-effects but wish to proceed anyway, and you should all recognise our human right to decide what we do with our own bodies” then … okay. Perhaps we should let them get on with it, in so far as it’s legal. Make their own series up. UltraBall or CycloMutant or whatever … as World’s Strongest Man is to Olympic weightlifting, let them come up with their own unofficial product to flog with their own rules in place. I daresay that various medical regulatory bodies would have ethical issues with the docs involved though.

        But if athletes come together and say “we collectively want not to have dope up with nasty chemicals just in order to stand on a level playing field with one another, and want to be protected from the pressure on us to do so” then that should be respected too. And to enforce that agreement, there needs to be meaningful testing procedures to reassure athletes that that level playing is there and that pressure to dope because “everyone is doing it” is nonsense, and a sufficiently strong punishment for those cheating on the deal to ensure that the incentives are clearly in favour of not doping.

        As I understand it, the vast majority of athletes would prefer to compete in a clean sport. That’s a very reasonable desire and the only way authorities can respect it is to ensure adequate enforcement.

  4. All these well-thought out comments have really put a dampener on the joke I was going to make about the syringe on the right bearing a word that looks the same written down as a former Spanish cycling team (along the lines of “I knew doing was an open secret amongst cycling teams in the late 90s, but I didn’t think ONCE would go so far as to have team-branded syringes”).

    On a more serious note, I’m reading a book about drugs in Nazi Germany at the moment – one of the first chapters deals with the introduction of a ‘performance-enhancing’ drug called Pervitin, which these days is more commonly encountered in the form of crystal meth.

    1. Of course I should have typed that “doping” was an open secret, not ‘doing’ (or even ‘doing doping’).

    2. That caught our eye, but didn’t think anyone would get the reference.

      Shows what we know.

      1. It is indeed, and although I’m only about 60 pages in it’s very interesting so far.

        The only other comment I have at this point is that the font size is quite large for a non-fiction book.

  5. Breaking news: ALEX BOWDEN claims that Sachin Tendulkar was taking steroids his entire career!!!!!

    Want to know how SACHIN TENDULKAR was able to cheat the public for 20+ hears? ALEX BOWDEN reveals: ***CLICK HERE***

    1. I was hoping KC’s blog would be the first hit if one googles “Sachin Tendulkar steroids”. Alas, that’s not the case. This experiment has failed.

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