Sunday, November 05, 2006

DNA testing for cyclists - and other athletes

OK, we know (or it's been reported) that Bettini doesn't like the idea and that Valverde is against it. Cunego says wait and close Operacion Puerto first, whilst saying it's a delicate issue. But the UCI is likely to press on anyway. It's DNA testing folks.

Why do it, anyway? Why attempt (they can say no and face the consequences, apparently) to get DNA samples from every pro rider? From where I sit the DNA samples constitute - firstly - a better way to label samples, so we get one step away from allegations of tampered-with samples, altered labels, switched samples and simple mistakes. Of course it's not foolproof but it's better than what we have (so goes the argument).

Secondly - assuming we get appropriate samples, ie including mitochondrial DNA - it gives us the opportunity to monitor the genetic performance enhancement that is bound to come - sooner rather than later.

This has got to be a step forward for fairness and correctness in process, surely? So why would an athlete say no?
  • Firstly, privacy. It's their DNA after all and it remains a very personal 'invasion' in many minds. It's the map of your genetic heritage for starters. It's like handing over your passport, your tax files and the password to your email accounts plus your entire family tree. To a body you may not entirely trust. You don't do it at the drop of a hat, do you?
  • Secondly, fear of another sort of 'labelling'. Criminals are asked for DNA samples, not the general public. So in some people's minds it is tantamount to saying that the althlete is already guilty - or very likely to be.
  • Thirdly, mistrust of 'the system'. Arguably neither the UCI nor WADA have shown themselves to be on the side of professional cyclists. If your livelihood was at stake, would you blithely agree to whatever was asked? Given the doubts raised about false positive testing, unless and until such doubts are erased - and trust rebuilt - we are only adding another potential flaw to a flawed system. Worse, DNA 'confirmation' of a positive test, when in fact the DNA test may at best only 'prove' the existence of a certain DNA signature, may lend weight to what could in fact be a false positive. It looks and sounds very scientific, so it may persuade some to believe more readily of the "guilt" of those tested.
  • Lastly - although I'm sure we'll think of more reasons with the passage of time - they (the athletes) may actually have something to hide.

So what could we do to assuage some fears and remove the doubts?

Perhaps we need to distance the DNA testing -if not all testing - from the UCI itself and place the responsibility of taking and securely keeping all DNA sampling with a new trusted 3rd party. Whatever form that body may take it can't be allied with the UCI, WADA or any of the labs that do the testing. It needs to be a neutral body and clearly seen to be be so.

We also need to do some effective communication, not just with the riders or athletes in other sports but with the community in general. And get the heat out of the situation. And build trust between all parties. Which may mean no more grandstanding by politicians or frenzied over-reaction by the press. It may also mean that protocols are religiously followed by all parties - with no "leaks", no shortcuts in the system that muddy the waters with unnecessary side issues of unfair treatment.

Hmmmm. Sounds like a tall order to me. Do we have the resolve to do it?

No comments: