Positively Positive

On a train heading north – Adelaide-Marla-Alice Springs. I’ve savoured an egg and bacon slider, washed down with coffee flavoured water. I need all the help I can get to replace calories after the 1000 kilometre ride, Geelong to Adelaide over the last three days! I’m perched up on a windowsill after seeing a spectacular sunrise over the salt bush and terracotta dust. The sky changed from iron grey in a series of minutes, as the sun crept over the horizon. We were left surrounded by the primary colours of the outback – ochre, green and blue. I couldn’t think of a more alien place to start writing a piece on drugs in sport. And not drugs in any sport – drugs in our sport. I’ve tried to condition my brain to be cup half-full when it comes to this issue, but each time a member of our community tests positive, I’m reminded of that empty portion in the vessel. It seems as foreign to me as writing this article.

We all do this great sport for the enjoyment and health benefits it confers. Why sully this with cheating? Not just for the money – but cheating the health of your body? Beth Gerdes is the latest high-profile positive drug test in Ironman, and it brings to light many issues. I’d like to address the facts (as I know them) and frame up some questions. I certainly don’t have the answers, but happy to host a discussion on my Facebook when this is published. I’ll invite Beth to participate if she wishes.

Firstly, the facts – Beth has been banned for two years for testing positive to Enobosarm or Ostarine. This penalty was reduced from four years to two through the process of hearings and appeals with her claim of supplement contamination. Also testing positive, Lauren Barnett (another US triathlete). She was able to provide a sealed bottle of the supplement (salt tablets) that contained an Ostarine level consistent with inadvertent consumption. Beth was unable to provide the same level of evidence as Lauren, but managed to mitigate the length of the ban by 50 percent.

You will note – Lauren still received a ban. She still tested positive and was penalised. She didn’t mean to take it [the banned substance], but she is still responsible for a performance-enhancing product being present in her urine.

Every athlete is ultimately responsible for his or her own body. That substance may have been providing Lauren considerable benefit for the duration of inadvertent use and may well do so into the future – a ban is obligatory. Given the spate of recent positives tests to this drug in triathlon (Lisa Marangon – four-year ban; Ashley Paulson – six-month ban; Lauren – six-month ban; and Beth – two-year ban) what are the benefits of Ostarine in endurance sports? And why are the bans so variable in their length, despite each athlete claiming it was inadvertent contamination?

Ostarine is a selective androgen receptor modulator for the treatment of muscle wasting and osteoporosis. It has structural similarities to Andarine, which has comparative effects. I am no endocrinologist, but this could be a prime vehicle for women in their sixties and seventies to prevent hip fractures, or for men/women in whom testosterone was not indicated/advisable. Muscle and bone mass both drop away after three-score.

Now, in English – It changes the way cells respond to androgens, allowing the androgen to bind more effectively or for longer (Merck doesn’t disclose everything). Androgens are male sex hormones (like testosterone) that develop and maintain male characteristics. Women still have androgens naturally occurring, just in far lower concentrations. (Mostly) female athletes chose to abuse Ostarine in the same way dopers like Ben Johnson used anabolic steroids. It helped him train harder – helped him build muscle and stamina. When you partner Ostarine with endurance training, you won’t get muscles like Johnson because of the way long miles trim us greyhounds down. It does, however, speed recovery to allow consistent training for racing. My educated guess is that as a drug, it has nowhere near the potency of androgens, analogous to EPO vs. CERA (Continuous Erythropoiesis Receptor Activator), i.e., hormone vs. receptor activation. In theory, it should have greater efficacy in the fairer gender – androgenising women has been used successfully by the Germans since the 1980’s. Look at what Caster Semenya has just been through for her naturally high testosterone readings.

Irrespective of the performance enhancing potential, there aren’t any studies investigating using Ostarine in healthy athletes (it’s been a banned substance since 2008). The medical and science community can only speculate on the short/medium/long-term effects.

It could be carcinogenic! Until proven otherwise, we should consider ingesting this substance (and all other banned products) as harmful to athletes and have zero tolerance for any positive finding (inadvertent or otherwise). This is the overarching paternalism of WADA, and it’s subsidiary bodies (ASADA, USADA, etc.). They act in the best interests of the athletes in a beneficent way. You cannot say the same of drug companies. Sure, WADA is also there to prevent cheating, but primarily its function is to protect each athlete under its umbrella.

“(Mostly) female athletes chose to abuse Ostarine in the same way dopers like Ben Johnson used anabolic steroids.” – Dr Mitch Anderson  

So, why the difference in penalties for these four women? Again, I have read, as much as is available, and have the advantage of knowing a couple of the women, so here is my take. Lisa took on the ASADA without pecuniary (therefore legal) advantage, and despite the protestation of a contaminated substance, she had no evidence to mitigate her four years. It’s a bit like the AFL tribunal – an early guilty plea allows a player to accept a reduced penalty. She battled all the way with an innocence plea and had to receive the maximum ban.

As I stated earlier, Laura was able to prove unequivocally that she had taken supplements with levels of Ostarine commensurate with her positive test. I presume Ashley Paulson was able to do the same. Beth was unable to provide similar evidence. I can’t speak on any of Beth’s proceedings, other than that reading her public statements she accepted the ban for having Ostarine in her system at the time of her test. But there must have been a significant difference between the supplement findings for the bans to be the resultant ban to be diametrically different.

And now for the controversy of ‘parochial bias’. Warnie was a drug cheat. Stuart O’Grady was a drug cheat. Neither of them are legends in my book because of their cheating. The whole “Chinese doping swimmers cheated our green-and-bloody-gold legends out of innumerate gold medals” is myopic and lame. Almost universally on the social media channels, Beth has been supported by her home states in the US and Australia. She is likeable and PR savvy – engendering the support of her fellow pros by contacting many of them prior to her public announcement. In stark contrast, the likes of Yvonne Van Vlerken (non-Australian/non-US, positive for EPO and returned from her ban) continues to be decried through the same media as a stain on triathlon and worthy of isolation by her peers as a persona non grata. Why the difference? Both are cheats according to the rules that we all sign up to, albeit with a difference in the substance they were caught abusing. There may be some mitigation with Beth’s plea for mitigation as inadvertent, but this was not substantiated by her (costly) legal team, or her ban would have been attenuated to six months.

I won’t give you the entire preamble about Beth or Lisa being pleasant and likeable persons (they are), it’s just not relevant. If it wasn’t deemed by ASADA/WADA/CASA to have been consumed inadvertently, they must be treated as if it was advertent – exactly the same as Van Vlerken. They are all drug cheats, likeable or not. They all received a benefit from ingesting a performance enhancing substance. It doesn’t make any of them bad people – it’s not an emotional label. If you break the rules, you are ipso facto, a cheat. When Beth has finished her ban, the rules state she can return to racing without question – same with Lisa.

But the disgraceful double standards should stop.

The bias of ‘what’ you cheated with or filtered by whether or not you are a ‘cool kid’ should be made redundant. Either treat all cheats the same – that they deserve a second chance after they have served their penalty, or find a pass time whose ethics are more aligned with your bias’. Maybe apply for a Collingwood football club membership! (Sorry Eddie).

See you on the road.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mitch Anderson

Dr. Mitch Anderson is one of the premier sports doctors in Melbourne working out his practice Shinbone Medical in North Melbourne. The former professional triathlete is your go-to triathlon doctor.

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