New testing protocols could change game in fight against PEDs
The 60 Minutes report Sunday night in which Tony Bosch detailed how he helped Alex Rodriguez beat baseball's drug testing program missed an important distinction about how Rodriguez got away with popping testosterone-laced gummies before a game: Rodriguez's drug regimen from 2010-12 is an outdated strategy that likely would not have worked last year when baseball tightened its testing protocols.
Baseball owners and players agreed in 2013 to adopt the so-called "biological passport" form of testing -- the same testing that disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong admitted forced him to abruptly end his years of doping.
"Biological passport testing is a game changer," said Dr. Gary Wadler, past chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency's Prohibited List.
From 2010-12 Bosch and Rodriguez were playing a covert game that became common as players moved from hard-core steroids to fine-tuned drug protocols designed to evade tests. Before 2013, baseball used the testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio as the baseline for defining a flagged test. The sport allowed a T:E ratio of up to 4:1. Only if the T:E ratio exceeded 4:1 would baseball's lab subject a sample to Carbon Isotope Radio Mass Spectrometry, known as IRMS, a more sophisticated test that will find the synthetic testosterone that normal urine tests miss.
"The key to what Bosch was doing was taking a baseline T:E ratio and administering testosterone in a way that the ratio would be under 4:1," said a source familiar with Bosch's protocol.
Bosch's method is typically known in the business of cheating as "microdosing." It involved precisely timed doses of fast-acting testosterone in conjunction with other drugs that helped manage the T:E rate, especially human growth hormone. According to Wadler, research in Australia showed that taking HGH in conjunction with testosterone can help lower a T:E rate that otherwise would be higher without HGH. (Baseball did not begin testing for HGH until 2013.)
Though Bosch's method generally worked as far as evading detection in tests, it required precision in timing and dosages. Bosch told 60 Minutes that taking one of his PEDs just 15 minutes later than prescribed by him could lead to a positive drug test. His method did trip up clients such as Ryan Braun, Melky Cabrera, Yasmani Grandal and Bartolo Colon, all of who tested positive in 2011 or 2012 for elevated levels of testosterone. (Braun's positive test was overturned upon an appeal that challenged how the sample was handled.) Braun's sample, taken after Game 1 of the 2011 National League Division Series, produced a T:E ratio that was reported to be more than 20:1.
"Braun got caught because he used either too much or too late," said another source familiar with the case. Others have speculated that Braun wrongly dismissed the possibility of being subject to testing in postseason play and disregarded Bosch's microdosing protocol.
Baseball began to see a trend mushrooming in 2012: players were turning to fast-acting synthetic testosterone to cheat. The 4:1 T:E ratio was providing room to maneuver for that cheating. So baseball owners and the players' association that year began discussing how to bring their Joint Drug Agreement up to date with state of the art testing protocols. They agreed they needed to run more of the more sensitive IRMS tests, but needed a better "trigger" mechanism than the 4:1 ratio. And that's why they turned to the biological passport testing system. They announced the system upgrade on Jan. 13, 2013 -- just nine days before former Biogenesis employee Porter Fisher turned over to the Miami New Times documents that belonged to Bosch and whose publication would lead to the biggest doping bust in baseball's history. Fourteen players were suspended. Rodriguez's 162-game ban as established by arbitrator Frederic Horowitz is the longest PED ban ever in the sport.
The average male T:E ratio is 1:1. What's more important in testing circles is that the T:E rate you are born with does not significantly fluctuate over your lifetime. Biological passport testing measures and records your T:E ratio with every test. Any fluctuation of that rate is a red flag that you could be introducing performance enhancers into your body.
For instance, if the baseline T:E rate for a ballplayer is 1:1, and suddenly his drug tests show a 3:1 rate -- still under the allowable 4:1 rate -- scientists at baseball's lab in Montreal will flag the test and run the more sophisticated IRMS test on the sample, which can detect synthetic testosterone that the basic test cannot. Beginning in 2013, the JDA also allows the lab to run IRMS tests randomly, not just on flagged tests.
In the past -- say in 2010-12 when Bosch was advising Rodriguez -- that original sample with the 3:1 T:E rate would have been entered as a "negative" drug test and not been subject to the IRMS test.
Armstrong knew very well about the impact of biological testing on cheaters. In 2008, Union Cycliste Internationale, the governing body of cycling, adopted the biological passport form of testing. That's when Armstrong said he decided to stop doping.
When asked by Oprah Winfrey why he quit doping, Armstrong said, "It's a question of scheduling. I know that sounds weird, but two things changed this: the shift to out-of-competition and the biological passport. And it really worked."
In 2013, the first year baseball introduced biological passport testing, no major league player was busted for synthetic testosterone. Of course, drug testing is a more elaborate game of whack-a-mole; the drug cheats and their gurus are already on to the next way to evade the latest test.
According to Bosch, Rodriguez paid him $12,000 a month to administer his sophisticated doping program, which included multiple banned substances that could be administered by creams, injections, pills and the "gummies," or a lozenge-like drug called "troches." Rodriguez would take the troches at a specific time before games, according to Bosch. The drug supplier also told 60 Minutes he schooled Rodriguez on how to provide a urine sample in order to evade testing: provide only urine from mid-stream, not from the beginning or the end of a stream.
"There's no science I know of behind any of that," Wadler said. "It's a classic case of athletes trusting pseudo-science over science."