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Doping in tennis: Is Andy Murray onto something?

murray 300x225 Doping in tennis: Is Andy Murray onto something?

(GETTY IMAGES)

The controversy surrounding Lance Armstrong, and the systematic and widespread abuse of performance-enhancing drugs in cycling over the past two decades, has undeniably been one of the biggest sporting scandals in recent years, some would argue of all time.

While the revelations about doping in cycling are in many cases not new or particularly surprising, the spectacular fall of an athlete previously idolised by so many and the subsequent destruction of his ill-gotten legacy has had a huge impact on cycling and raised wider concerns about drug taking in other sports as well.

Now that the full glare of the world’s media is focused on the issue, testimony and allegations from cycling’s last big scandal, Operción Puerto – the Spanish police operation against Dr Eufemiano Fuentes’ doping empire, are being dragged up once more and raising fresh questions about the integrity of sport in general.

After his arrest in 2006, Fuentes was angry that cycling was drawing all the attention and claimed that doping was taking place in other sports. He was quoted at the time saying, “There has been selective leaking, only names of cyclists have come out. This is what makes me angry,” and when asked if his blood treatments could work in other sports, he declared that he had prescribed them “in order to help with recovery to footballers, tennis players and athletes”. He went on to clarify that he could not say who they were “owing to professional secrecy”.

In the end his allegations against other sportsmen were never proven and charges were only brought against cyclists. However, it raised the very real possibility that the abuse of performance enhancing drugs was taking place in a range of sports like football and tennis.

Given that Andy Murray has recently said he believes there should be more drugs testing in tennis, I spoke to Dr Stuart Miller, head of the International Tennis Federation’s science and technical department, the organisation responsible for the majority of drugs testing in tennis, in order to find out how the current system works.

The Tennis Anti-Doping Programme follows fairly standardised guidelines for sample collection according to Dr Miller: “Both urine and blood samples are collected, both during events and outside of events and all with no advance notice.”

The testing covers a broad spectrum of drugs and the samples are analysed for all substances on the WADA Prohibited List, including EPO and human growth hormone. However, in the same way that for many years EPO use was virtually untraceable, Dr Miller concedes there are still things that cannot be tested for: “The biggest gap in sample analysis is that there is currently no test available to any anti-doping organisation for autologous blood transfusions.”

Under the TADP, any player who competes in Grand Slams, ATP and WTA Tour games, Davis and Fed Cup matches and wheelchair events, can be tested, and according to Dr Miller: “In-Competition tests are conducted at about 60 events during the year and higher-ranked players tend to be tested more often.

“On average, a top player would expect to be tested around 10 times per year under the TADP, and perhaps additionally by his/her National Anti-Doping Organisation.”

In terms of Andy Murray’s statement, which called for a wider testing regime and tougher drugs penalties, Dr Miller is not entirely in agreement: “Any anti-doping organisation could do more testing, but the resources necessary to do so are finite and have to be allocated to other important areas too, such as education, sanction management, administration, etc. Having said that, the ITF will be reviewing the operation of the TADP with its partners.”

Currently the punishment under the WADA Code for failing a drugs test is a two-year ban, with the forfeiture of prize money and ranking points from the event in question. However, this can be reduced to a warning or increased to four years, depending on the case circumstances, such as the substance involved. For a second offence, punishment can be anything up to a life ban and this is a system Dr Miller is seemingly happy with: “The WADA Code provides sufficient flexibility to apply appropriate sanctions.”

So what about the claims of Dr Fuentes and others in the past? I asked Dr Miller if he thought drug taking was rife in tennis and what more could be done to keep the sport clean: “It would be naive for any sport to believe that all cases of doping are detected, and any statement of the extent to which doping is widespread in a sport would be speculative.”

“Educating more young players to raise awareness about doping and a means of detecting autologous blood transfusions would be helpful. As well as analysis techniques that provide a greater ‘detection window’ – i.e. will return a positive finding for a longer period of time following ingestion.”

Unfortunately however, for the time being at least, we will never really know how clean the sport is. A sense of optimism combined with the fairly small number of failed drugs tests would lead some to believe in the integrity of tennis. Although the more pessimistic would suggest that the cheats are simply finding ways to avoid detection. Perhaps the saddest thing is that the latter point of view can no longer just be dismissed as a wild conspiracy theory. If the recent history of sport has given us one thing, then it is unfortunately a strong basis for such cynicism.

You can follow the writer on twitter: @thesportsfox

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  • muggers

    Well, women tennis players are now playing like the men from 20 years ago, and the men are knocking holes in the net with their power, whilst still running like it’s the first set after 6 hours.
    Couple this with the fact that tennis just does not effectively test top players (they get out-of-season testing about once a year, and only the losers in the early rounds of comps ever get tested), and with the many millions at stake, the question is not ‘Why should I dope’ but ‘Why wouldn’t I dope’?

  • Habitant

    “…but the resources necessary to do so are finite…” This is an absurd comment to make about tennis, especially when compared to cycling, and only says, to me, that the world of tennis doesn’t want to investigate doping in earnest, for fear of losing sponsorship.
    Is there doping in tennis, football, golf? You bet. Is it more widespread and commonplace than we believe? Believe it.

  • vesenaz

    An unfortunate ‘double entendre’ headline to this article: was it written ‘in all innocence’ or ‘to attract attention’?

  • Labradorofperception

    I would like to write more about the tennis players involved in the Operacion Puerto, but I have knee injury………


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