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Test Patterns
David Epstein
May 30, 2011
The Armstrong case points up the weaknesses in sports drug testing
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May 30, 2011

Test Patterns

The Armstrong case points up the weaknesses in sports drug testing

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On Sunday's 60 Minutes, less than a year after testifying before the grand jury investigating Lance Armstrong, Tyler Hamilton, a former rider for the U.S. Postal Service team, said that he saw the seven-time Tour de France winner use performance-enhancing drugs, was given PEDs by Armstrong and heard him discuss them with others. (The show also reported that another former teammate, George Hincapie, had testified before the grand jury.) In anticipation of the broadcast, Armstrong had defended himself last Thursday by tweeting, "20+ year career. 500 drug controls worldwide, in and out of competition. Never a failed test. I rest my case." Numerous experts say the absence of a positive test, however, should not be taken as proof that doping did not occur.

Every advance in the detection of PEDs has been met with an advance in masking. When a method for detecting excessive testosterone using the body's testosterone/epitestosterone ratio was developed in 1981, East German doctors began synthesizing epitestosterone for their athletes to inject along with testosterone to keep their ratios stable. The strategy surfaced again in "the cream," the rub-on steroid lotion made infamous in the BALCO case. BALCO client Marion Jones never failed a drug test, and she was caught only through a criminal investigation.

One popular current doping method is micro-dosing, or frequent use of small quantities of testosterone or EPO; enough to get a benefit, but not to exceed the testing threshold. And then there's HGH. The current method of detection is so feeble that an athlete who injects HGH for lunch can be clean for testing by dinner.

"Antidoping has a reputation that far exceeds its capabilities," says Paul Scott, head of Scott Analytics, an antidoping services firm. "The rate of false negatives is enormous." With former teammates testifying to what they've witnessed, Armstrong may not be able to rest his case on such a flawed science.

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