Tuesday 29 May 2012, 08:48

Long-term surveillance in the fight against doping

Although doping cases continue to be rare in football, the issue of illegal substances remains of paramount importance to the doctors of FIFA’s member associations. Above all, medical professionals are focused on the longer term surveillance of players, a new initiative that was discussed at FIFA’s Medical Conference in Budapest on Thursday.

“The game has developed a lot and become much more athletic,” FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter explained in his opening address to the conference. “The tempo has increased, including in terms of the number of games played per season. Players have to be more and more competitive. The fight against doping is an issue that needs to be treated seriously, because there are cheats and that’s a fact.”

Michel D’Hooghe, the Chairman of the FIFA Medical Committee and a FIFA Executive Committee member, then emphasised how FIFA began its battle against doping at the 1970 FIFA World Cup™ – and that it has not altered its position since. “We’re against doping because it goes against ethics, fair play and the integrity of players,” he said.

FIFA’s campaign against doping involves collaborating with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), instituting rules and ensuring that these rules are followed by the member associations. “Since 2009, we have been in compliance with the World Anti-Doping Code,” said Professor Jiri Dvorak, FIFA’s Chief Medical Officer and Chairman of the FIFA Medical and Research Centre (F-MARC).

“The member associations have to apply FIFA’s anti-doping rules. It’s the responsibility of the associations to carry out doping tests during tournaments and also away from competitions. And they are obliged to collaborate with WADA’s regional agencies.

We don’t want to be naively optimistic. We know we have to continue the fight, and the next step consists of creating long-term biological profiles (passports).

“Approximately 30,000 tests are carried out per year with 0.3 per cent ending up positive, which is one of the lowest rates in sport,” he added. “Only 0.03 per cent involve the use of anabolic steroids.” The figures are undeniably encouraging, but Professor Dvorak was at pains to emphasise that the struggle against doping is far from over. “We don’t want to be naively optimistic. We know we have to continue the fight, and the next step consists of creating long-term biological profiles (passports). We’re working with WADA in this area and we need the support of the clubs and players.”

The conference then looked in more detail at the nature of biological profiles (passports), with Martial Saugy (pictured), Director of the Anti-Doping Laboratory in Lausanne giving a scientific rundown. “It’s a profile that’s both individual and spread over time,” he said. “To use an example, an injection of synthetic EPO is intended to increase the number of red blood cells. In the past, we measured the increase in hermatocrit levels in an ad-hoc way. By measuring haemoglobin levels at different moments, you can obtain a profile with minimal and maximal rates for each individual.”

The Swiss professor, who carried out a pilot test during last year’s FIFA Club World Cup, also explained that the same type of study can be carried out for steroid levels.

WADA’s principal concern, meanwhile, is ensuring that its code is adhered to, which was a point made by the agency’s Director General, David Howman. “We must also make sure that the rules in place are effective,” he said. “We have to be certain that we catch the cheats, we have to be certain that everyone is educated and, lastly, we have to be certain we’re using our resources wisely. I think it’s important to underline that we want to carry out more education and fewer tests, and that we’re aiming for quality rather than quantity.”

Howman was nonetheless quick to praise FIFA’s initiative in terms of biological profiles (passports), stressing that “it’s both a remarkable weapon in the fight against doping and an important tool for following the health of players”. The procedure will soon become commonplace too, as Professor Dvorak explained. “Our goal is to launch the biological profiles for the teams that qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.”