People seem to be happy to talk about drugs in athletics and cycling these days, people like Gatlin get derided and left out in the cold and people refuse to forgive them for their failed drug tests in the past. Anyone winning the tour de France is given some healthy suspicion. The competitors and governing bodies of these sports point to their drugs testing programs, which without a doubt are making big improvements, alongside WADA. Improvements include the biological passport, increased awareness and media pressure and new more sophisticated tests, which all make it harder to cheat. But what about canoeing? What are we doing? Canoeing is a smaller sport with less of a media spotlight, despite its presence in the Olympics, but little is ever mentioned about testing and drugs within the sport.
Clearly we all want a clean and fair sport for everyone to enjoy, but in order to get that everyone needs to be engaged. There isn’t a huge amount of testing within canoe / kayak, especially within certain disciplines, and a lot of the time there isn’t much discussion about the potential that there could be athletes who aren’t clean. It’s taboo to suggest that the sport isn’t perfect, but doing so isn’t to cast aspersions on individuals, it is merely to point out that more can always be done to keep drugs out.
Canoeing and kayaking statistics
We decided to have a look at the 2014 testing figures to get an idea of what is going on in the sport. According to the WADA figures, canoe / kayak carried out 4,485 tests in 2014. The vast majority of the test were urine tests, and only 0.5% came back with an Adverse Analytical Finding (which it should be noted isn’t necessarily a failed test).
The full breakdown of testing is in this google sheet, which is complied from the WADA figures. The figures are broken down by discipline and by the types of test carried out. The figures for the number of tests carried out by each country and federation are in table 1. Clearly some countries have more testing (and probably more budget provided by their various national bodies to make it possible) but some are really quite low – you can make your own judgement where the “too few” mark lies. Para-Canoe had only a smattering of tests in 2014 despite being a sport that will be handing out medals at Rio.
The breakdown by discipline in the spreadsheet doesn’t seem to add up to the total tests done within the sport, but the tests carried out by national federations and national anti doping authorities do add up to the 4,485 total tests for Canoe / Kayak. However, looking at the individual discipline break down it is clear that flatwater and slalom (being the Olympic side of the sport) are doing a lot more than the other sections. Marathon for example performed only 21 doping tests, which were all in competition urine tests. Even University Canoe / Kayak carried out 15 in competition urine tests.
“What is an Adverse Analytical Finding”
Adverse Analytical Findings are not the same as Anti‐Doping Rule Violations. According to WADA it is “a report from a laboratory or other WADA ‐ approved entity that, consistent with the International Standard for Laboratories and related Technical Documents, identifies in a Sample the presence of a Prohibited Substance or its Metabolites or Markers (including elevated quantities of endogenous substances) or evidence of the Use of a Prohibited Method”. Results may come back as an AAF but then turn out to be related to a Therapeutic Use Exemption and not have any foul play involved, or they may not be backed up by a B sample, or could be shown to be invalid. Therefore, not all AAFs will eventually result in a violation.
In competition urine tests are the easiest and cheapest but you can’t test for everything with urine. Also, if you rely on in competition testing it is quite possible to dope in the off season then come off things for competition, as long as you don’t expect to get tested out of competition. Marathon only carried out one “EPO” test out of competition, one growth hormone test and no carbon isotope tests. Obviously marathon doesn’t have loads of money to throw at testing, a full panel costs at lot, but without the threat of testing it is easy to see how people will be tempted to dope.
It might be tempting to think that because canoeing and kayaking are not huge global sports there may be less incentive to cheat than in sports like cycling or athletics. However, there is still well documented drug use amongst amateurs in other sports like cycling. Add to that the fact that competitive people often want to try everything they can, and it looks naive to just hope people won’t want to cheat. (Side note: we keep using cycling and athletics for examples because people have actually researched them, unlike paddling).
There were 566 tests in 2014 that were used for the Biological Passport scheme, see table 2, which is a very welcome sight. As a comparison, Athletics had 3,317, Rowing 1004, Judo 35 and Field Hockey only 4. So compared to other sports that looks like quite a reasonable number. The Passport is not a golden ticket though, it can only look for changes in markers and the testers have to have a very high degree of certainty that the changes are not natural for them to be able to do anything. Using it to target tests is good, but then the tests themselves need to be able to pick up the drugs in the first place, which they often struggle with.
What are the tests and how do they work?
The main test to see if someone has been using testosterone is to look at the ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone (T/E ratio) which is normally about 1 (but does vary between individuals). Epitestosterone isn’t androgenic so it isn’t useful to dope with and people normally take just testosterone, which pushes up the T/E ratio. The limit to be considered doping is a ratio of 4:1 (in order to account of some natural variations between people) but this leaves room for well planned doping. For example, the ratio quickly drops down after administration of small doses, so testing is not easy. There is an improved test, the Carbon Isotope Ratio test, but it is slower and more expensive and often only used to confirm a failed T/E ratio test.
The test for Human Growth Hormone (hGH) isn’t too great either. The standard test for hGH is the isoform test. It looks at the ratio of different forms of GH in a sample (around 70% of normal circulating GH is a 22 kilodalton isoform while the rest is 20 kilodaltons plus of some fragments. Synthetic hGH / rhGH is only available as the 22-kilodalton variety). So the test tries to detect doping by looking for the ratio being out of whack as a result of athletes taking the synthetic 22 kilodalton form. Unfortunately the body corrects the ratio in hours. Add to that the safety margin the testers have to add to allow for variations between people and the testers have to get very lucky to catch someone (or have very good intel). There is a newer better test, the biomarker test, but the supply of test kits hasn’t been reliable so its implementation has been patchy at best.
Anecdotally, without naming names, if you spend enough time around the sport you hear rumours and stories. People pick up stories from talking to other athletes when they are away at competitions and it is hard not to think there is truth in some of then, if not many. However, these stories are rarely shared outside of a close group and there doesn’t seem to be a culture of demanding questioning and testing.
Nathan Baggaley seems to get held up as a poster boy of drugs in kayaking, mentioned then dismissed and little said about the need for scrutiny of current athletes. For example Tate Smith was reported to have failed a test in 2104 while in Hungary (1,2) and the news was only around for a day or two. He blamed contaminated supplements and that may well have been the cause, but the real point is that I’ve heard nothing of it since. No one discusses it, it is ignored. To their credit it is mentioned in an ICF article about the K4 this year, but otherwise the only thing I can find online apart from the initial news reports is a comment from Australian canoeing’s National Performance Director Richard Fox in March 2015 saying that Tate is still suspended and “It’s still under their jurisdiction. It’s a matter between [Australian Sport Anti-Doping Authority] (ASADA) and him,” “He’s not racing so he won’t be selected”. It is quite possible that there could be legal proceedings and people don’t want to prejudice them, but when commentators note that the K4 has been changed since London, they shouldn’t hide away from saying why. *(see end)
When people do fail tests in canoeing, what are they failing for? The majority seem to be for anabolic agents, followed by stimulants, as you might guess.
What are the performance benefits?
There is a whole host of different performance enhancing drugs around but there are a core few that are staples. EPO (erythropietin) and various derivatives (other Erythropoiesis-stimulating agents that get tend to get lumped together) are used to increase athletes red blood cell count (hematocrit level) to higher than normal levels. This helps the body get more oxygen round, improving endurance performance and recovery from training. The thickening of the blood can be dangerous when taken without medical supervision and need. Human Growth Hormone (hGH) is taken to increase lean body mass, reduce body fat and speed recovery from injury. Although the literature around its benefits is not conclusive it is still widely used. When taken in high doses hGH may increase cancer risk. Testosterone and anabolic agents like steroids are taken to increase strength and muscle mass as well as speeding recovery from training.
The wider picture of anti doping
Aside from canoeing specific considerations it is important to be aware of the state of the anti doping fight in general, which is not in a particularity good state. The commonly used hGH test is barely effective and there have only been a handful of positive tests for hGH despite its widespread alleged use. The standard test for testosterone, the T/E ratio test, is easily fooled (there is a better test known as the Carbon Isotope Ratio test but it is expensive, costing around $400 compared to $150 for the T/E ratio. The better CIR test still struggles to detect lower doses so it is rarely used). Canoe / kayak as a whole only carried out 61 of the better Gas Chromatograph/Carbon/Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometer tests in 2014. Also, the EPO test can be passed by micro dosing.
Athletes who want to dope are constantly finding ways to evade these tests. People have adulterated urine samples with proteases to destroy traces of EPO, substituted someone else’s urine, taken epitestosterone alongside testosterone to keep T/E ratios low and chemists are doubtless designing drugs to pass the tests (as they have done before). It is quite possible in many cases to dope as a junior and just make sure you don’t race too much internationally where you might get tested and then take advantage of all the doping later as a senior. Athletes can get Therapeutic Use Exemptions for quite a variety of drugs, in some non Olympic events athletes can even get exceptions for testosterone replacement therapy.
Simpler still, athletes can just avoid the testers. Out of competition tests are unannounced and athletes have to say where they will be for one hour of each day so that they can be tested (under the ADAMS system). However, athletes are allowed to miss three tests per year and not face sanctions. Athletes (for example Tyler Hamilton) have been known to simply hide from testers if they turn up at a time that they think they might fail the test. Given that the window during which many of the test are effective is so short avoiding testing is quite a viable option.
Looking to athletics again, there are indications that doping is far more widespread than is realised. For example there was a study carried out in 2011 at the Athletics World Championships in Daegu and the Pan-Arab Games where athletes were given an iPad and asked randomly either if their birthday was in between January and June or if they had “knowingly violated anti-doping regulations by using a prohibited substance or method in the past 12 months”. The researchers estimated that 29% of the athletes at the world championships and 45% of the athletes at the Pan-Arab Games had doped. There is some statistical uncertainty in the results, and the honesty of the athletes can’t be guaranteed but the numbers are still worryingly high! And there’s troubling data everywhere you look, for example testing of Jamaican Track and Field athletes by their federation in 2012 was extremely weak
(remember that they were still have been eligible to be tested a races when they were abroad, just not in Jamaica).
With so many possible ways to get round tests and the fallibility of the tests we all need to keep the pressure up to make sure the sport to does everything it can. There is a real need for increased testing along with improved procedures, such as storing and re testing samples and developing new tests (which must come from the whole sporting community not just the canoeing world). We also need increased awareness among competitors and fans of our sport so that the issue is confronted and not left. This is needed to ensure the sport can stay fair and a level playing field for all. There is always a fear that positive tests are a bad thing and will damage the sport and bring adverse media attention, or even drive away the little attention that kayaking manages to get. However, this is not a reason to avoid testing or to slack off on enforcing the rules.
Given canoe / kayak’s potential to be removed from the Olympic program one can see how people would be fearful of doping revelations, but precisely the reverse is true: to be worthy of being taken seriously the sport must do everything it can to be as clean as it can. Good anti-doping is good for the sport in the long term even if it brings some bad news along the way.
Hopefully this article makes you think and pay more attention, not to disregard individual’s performances or lose faith in the sport but instead to stand for a strong future with robust testing, procedures and culture within the sport.
All figures for 2014 testing are from the WADA report available at