Rasmus Damsgaard has served as the FIS Anti-Doping Expert since the summer of 2006, having worked alongside Bengt Saltin since 2001. In this interview, he takes stock on the work done so far and the current state of affairs with the FIS Anti-Doping program and fight for clean skiing and snowboarding.
At a high level, how has the FIS anti-doping program developed since you took over the role of the FIS Anti-Doping Expert four years ago and what do you consider its current main focus areas?
Over the past four years, significant anti-doping achievements have been realized. This began with my participation on behalf of FIS in the WADA Blood Profile Group in 2006. The aim of this group was to harmonize blood testing across all sports through the development of rigid but ethically correct guidelines for blood testing. These guidelines were also to include the development of individual haemoglobin upper limits to replace the values based on the general population, i.e. haemoglobin upper limits of 17 and 16 g/dl for males and females, respectively. The blood guidelines have now been implemented by WADA as the "haematological module" in the Athlete Biological Passport (ABP). FIS is one of a few International Federations that has adapted these guidelines which essentially means that FIS can sanction an athlete based on an individual, abnormal blood profile.
The prerequisite of a solid ABP is a simple "whereabouts system" in which the registered testing pool athletes have to enter their daily locations and a 60 minute test slot during which the athlete have committed themselves to be available, 365 days a year. The WADA whereabouts system, ADAMS, is handling this information. It takes time to change the behavior of athletes to suddenly report their whereabouts at all times into an internet-based database. However, the majority of skiers adapted to this rule surprisingly fast and today whereabouts problems are almost negligible even though ADAMS is not yet the most intuitive system to work with.
The FIS anti-doping program has developed from testing a lot of skiers at all times to one designed to ensure clean winners. This means that in addition to the registered testing pool, a prioritized testing pool has been defined. We are paying some extra attention to this pool, not because we are suspecting the winners to cheat but to ensure that those who win can not be suspected of cheating.
The EPO test has undergone vast improvements since 2006. When I took on the role as FIS Anti-Doping Expert, the EPO test only recognized two certified pharmaceutically produced EPOs. However, it was common knowledge that >100 not registered EPOs were available on the black market. Following the variations in blood variables from all skiers included in the FIS blood screening program, I became aware of a handful of blood profiles that looked abnormal during a very short period of time. On the basis of EPO urine tests, extremely suspicious EPO patterns could be identified. However, these patterns were not identical to the patterns required by the rules for an adverse analytical finding and although there was little doubt of an EPO positive test (the patterns belonged to the >100 black market EPO), no sanctions could be applied. FIS urged WADA to change the rules enabling us to sanction on the basis of such EPO patterns.
Today, the bands do not have to be identical to a specific pattern and additional tests may be conducted making the EPO urine test much more sensitive. In fact it is now the case that an EPO test can be used as part of the total evidence to determine an anti-doping violation even if it is not positive. A suspicious blood profile or odd whereabouts behavior etc. can support an abnormal EPO test to declare a violation based on indirect evidence can be issued.
To avoid double testing, FIS has initiated cooperation with National Anti-Doping Organizations (NADOs). This means that FIS anti-doping collection providers are obliged to contact the NADOs well in advance in order to plan the testing. Not only is double testing vastly reduced but also the number of tests conducted on each athlete is conducted more efficiently and generally reduced, which leads to less unnecessary stress on the athlete.
The 2010/2011season is another FIS World Championship winter. Does this mean any special areas of emphasis or new procedures for the FIS Anti-Doping program?
No, anti-doping activities are all-year activities. It is clear that doping control based on the biochemical effects in the body must take place when the administration of illegal substances is anticipated. As an example, the administration of steroids takes weeks to obtain their full effect and is therefore primarily used out-of-season. In addition, the effect of steroid administration in youth may last for the entire career and testing must hence take place early in an athlete's sports life.
By the same token, EPO is anticipated to be administered primarily during the pre-season and before major competitions, independently of the name and size of the major competition. Therefore, EPO should be tested for during both out-of and in-competition season.
FIS anti-doping program is an all carrier program. The smartest and most intelligent, sensible program is one covering all aspects of an athlete's career including relevant test collection behavior. Striving for such a program is the least we can do in order to gain the skiers' respect and confidence in our common struggle for a clean sport.
Are you confident that the FIS anti-doping program currently represents best-in-class among the International Federations for fighting cheating in sport?
Out of the 80+ Olympic recognized sports, I see FIS and UCI have state-of-the-art anti-doping programs. To be best-in-class means a combination of an extensive out-of-competition program on prioritized athletes with a solid in- and out-of-competition program covering all athletes. This is what FIS has achieved.
There are of course other firm levels of anti-doping programs within the International Federations and National Anti-Doping Organizations, often based on limited anti-doping budgets. For these organizations, one additional suggestion might be to introduce pre-competition testing and profiling which is a very cost-effective way to start. The next step would be to slowly introduce out-of-competition testing on a small group of prioritized athletes and then later on, grow the number of out-of-competition tests and group size.
Cycling, especially, has seen some spectacular cases of doping recently which have again shattered the belief in the sport's efforts to change its culture. How much similarity do you see to skiing?
There are differences and similarities. The differences are that skiing historically hasn't had a lot of exotic substances, such as Phase III clinical trial pharmaceuticals, clenbuterol, steroids or similar cases telling me that cheating skiers are not constantly looking for new medical methods to improve their performance. Instead, it is telling me that newcomers may have a different approach to a possible medical improvement of their performance and if cheating, it is "old school" doping with EPO and/or blood transfusion with some exceptions which confirm the rule.
The similarities include that at least one skier and one cyclist (+coach) seem to have owned a blood transfusion machine of the same type that were used during the Iraq war - and are now in use in Afghanistan enabling storage of own blood indefinitely.
In your view, is anti-doping a lost cause or is there hope of prevailing over those not playing a fair game?
Quitting is not an option in a sporting environment. Preparation is everything and if we are well prepared, nothing comes as a surprise to us. As the golfer Nick Faldo answered a journalist claiming that Faldo was incredible lucky with his last put upon winning his second British Open: "Yes, I was lucky, however, the more I prepare the luckier I get."
Scientifically, and especially with the introduction of the plasticizer (phthalater) analyses in urine (and soon maybe in blood), we are in the clear.