Piloting a new course
© FIFA.com

While Barcelona were setting a new milestone on the pitch at December’s FIFA Club World Cup by becoming the first team to lift the trophy twice, an important first was also taking place off the field as FIFA’s Medical Department used the year-ending tournament to pilot an innovative testing procedure in the fight against doping.

In the weeks leading up to the world club showpiece in Japan, FIFA doping control officers paid an unannounced visit to each of the seven participating teams to conduct out-of-competition doping tests on the players, the results of which were used to provide baseline values for a new procedure known as steroid profiling.

Steroid profiles are intended to address the problem that many of the substances used in doping occur naturally within the human body. Detecting small increases in these substances is made even more difficult by the fact that “normal” levels can vary significantly from one person to another. Profiling therefore takes a different approach, comparing an individual’s test results against the historical values of his or her previous results, rather than against a single, absolute threshold. In this way, physicians can pinpoint deviations in the individual’s biological markers which might raise the suspicion of manipulation.

While variances in a player’s biological markers across different tests do not in themselves constitute proof of wrongdoing, they could raise a suspicion of manipulation and therefore provide rational grounds for follow-up tests and the inclusion of the player in FIFA’s international registered testing pool – the group of international-level players who are categorised as being at high-risk of doping and on whom FIFA focuses its testing.

“Steroid and blood profiling might currently be the most effective means of fighting doping,” explains FIFA’s Chief Medical Officer Prof. Jiri Dvorak. “The main advantage is that the profiles are based on the consistency of the player’s physiology. New drugs are constantly appearing on the market and it can take several years to create an effective method of detecting them, but a human being’s physiology is inherited and remains broadly the same through several generations.

“Another positive side-effect of this study is that it is helping to raise awareness of our existing anti-doping programme and hopefully acting as a deterrent to would-be cheats and their advisors because it shows the lengths we are going to in order to expose them.”

As well as curbing the use of illegal substances, Dvorak is also keen to emphasise that profiling can be in players’ own interests. “By indicating deviations from a player’s baseline values, profiling can make it easier to identify diseases or abnormalities at an early stage, bringing added health benefits for players.”

It is helping to raise awareness of our existing anti-doping programme and hopefully acting as a deterrent to would-be cheats.
Prof. Jiri Dvorak, FIFA's Chief Medical Officer.

Sports-specific approach
Football is not alone in considering a long-term, individual-orientated approach to anti-doping, with the international cycling and skiing federations having already introduced blood profiling into their testing concepts. FIFA is, however, the first international sports federation to investigate the possibility of using an individual steroid profile.

The decision to focus on steroid rather than blood profiling was based upon results from an extensive series of blood tests carried out at the 2002 FIFA World Cup™ and at the UEFA EURO 2008, which did not show any indication of blood manipulation at international elite level in football.

“It is not cost-effective or practical to carry out endless numbers of anti-doping tests, so you have to consider what advantages athletes would seek to gain in your particular sport,” explains Dvorak. “Blood profiling examines the different components of the blood count to detect blood doping and makes sense in sports which call for high endurance, such as cycling or cross-country skiing. So the blood profile that has been introduced by the International Cycling Union is a perfectly valid and targeted strategy in terms of the most commonly observed prohibited substances in cycling.”

Thankfully, doping as a whole remains a relatively rare phenomenon in football, with so-called “social” drugs such as marijuana accounting for the vast majority of positive tests, followed (at a considerable distance) by stimulants, anabolic steroids and glucocorticosteroids.

Spreading the word
While an analysis of the pilot-study test results by the Swiss Laboratory for Doping Analyses in Lausanne has fortunately shown that none of the players’ values lay outside the normal parameters, a separate feasibility looking at the testing procedure itself and the costs involved has shown steroid profiling to be an effective procedure.

“The results of the study clearly demonstrate that steroid profiling is a precise and reliable way of establishing each player’s steroid blueprint, and it will be possible to use this method in the near future to prevent manipulation using steroid hormones in professional football,” says Dr Martial Saugy, head of the laboratory.

FIFA now plans to introduce steroid profiling in all of its competitions later this year, and its medical team will share their initial findings and experiences with their colleagues in the confederations and at the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). While the programme is still in its infancy, WADA has welcomed football’s targeted solution.

“We were very happy to hear that FIFA has piloted this study,” WADA’s Director General David Howman told FIFA World. “The challenges to sport presented by doping are becoming increasingly sophisticated and the anti-doping movement has to explore every avenue in its efforts to root out cheats. We look forward to sitting down with FIFA to learn more about their experiences with steroid profiling.”