Will the Athlete Biological Passport sort out tennis?

By Tom Copeland

The announcement by British Tennis Federation to introduce the Athlete Biological Passport programme is a step in the right direction for a sport which has recently come under an increasing amount of fire for its lack of measures to combat doping and bring down the cheats. However the way the programme works means that it will do little to stem the cynics in the short term as it isn’t as clear cut as whether a player is clean or dirty. ­­

The International Tennis Federation, ITU, has agreed to increase its current funding budget, currently a rather abysmal $2m – less than a quarter of the UK Sport’s anti-doping funding even after it has been cut by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

Another way of putting into perspective how small the budget is is to compare its funding to the prize money for winning the Australian Open, which stands at an astounding $2.5m in 2012. This really epitomises what there is to gain from doping in tennis, and why so many people have reason to be sceptical.

The water gets even muddier when you look at how often tennis players are actually tested. In 2011, the last year for which figures are currently available, only 131 blood tests were performed, with only 21 of those being taken out of competition, and furthermore only three of those were on women players.

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Blood doping is currently seen as the area to target in order to bring down the cheats, looking for use of products such as human growth hormone and erythropoietin (EPO) – of which you hear so much about in cycling at the moment. And blood testing is vital in order to discover such products, yet fewer than 6% of tests by the ITU were on blood in 2011.

Athletics performed better with 17.6% of their tests on blood in 2011, while cycling boasted a strong 35% of testing on blood – often hinted at as the reason why so many drugs cheats are caught in cycling.

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It is easy to see why top players such as Andy Murray and Roger Federer were quick to raise concerns for the health of their sport following the uncovering of several large scale doping rings in Europe recently.

So how will the Biological Passport help to combat this lack of confidence by both players and fans alike?

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) cites the fundamental principle of the Passport as: “the monitoring of selected parameters over time that indirectly reveal the effect of doping, as opposed to the traditional direct detection of doping by analytical means”.

It is the ‘over time’ aspect that causes a slight issue.

The Passport works by taking data from many blood tests over a period of time and creating individual player blood profiles, which can then be analysed for significant changes in levels of haematocrit and other identifiers. If profiles move out of set parameters, seen to be caused by means from outside of the body, then that is enough to open a doping case against that athlete.

But would blood doping products such as EPO make much difference in Tennis?

Although a lot of tennis comes down to skill and precision, endurance and recovery also play a major part in the long, draining tournaments that players compete in. EPO works as a blood booster, which means that it would help players to stay stronger for longer especially in some of the epic contests we have seen recently – The Australian Open final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal was a near six hour marathon, the longest Grand Slam final in history.

For tennis, implementing the programme now will mean that it will take time for profiles to be built, samples to be taken, and analysis to be made. All this takes time, perhaps into the years. Cycling implemented the Passport programme in 2008, and it took over a year and a half for the first cases to be brought against riders.

When taken into consideration, this then raises the issue of whether tennis may not want to implement a wide scale anti-doping programme that could lead to the immediate foiling of players using of banned substances.

The money could have been better spent on a increase of the number of out of competition blood tests, at a time when players would use performance enhancing substances to built strength and endurance. The result of more out of competition testing: more players being caught and a dark shadow being cast over the sport as a whole. Not something that a sporting governing body wants.

Without proof of doping, this is all scepticism. It is altogether possible that the lack of positive tests in tennis shows that the sport is clean, but the criticism cannot be ignored and more direct testing is needed for clarity at a time when a clear-cut crackdown on the cheats is required.

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