FIFA Takes Aim at Doping Starting with World Cup

The 2014 FIFA World Cup has seen soccer pushed into the technological age.  Goal-line technology has been effective and has put the minds of players, fans and referees at ease.  Additional technology has been developed to track player fitness and performance throughout the match.  Adidas has marketed their MiCoach chip to players and fans alike to track and evaluate the stamina and distance covered throughout each game.

All sports, including soccer, are exploring ways to gain a competitive edge against opponents and push the human body to the limit.  To this end, athletes must navigate the blurred line between monitoring their body’s vitamin intake and doping.  Sports scientists often walk a very thin line by encouraging athletes to take certain supplements to improve recovery or gain strength.  The list of banned substances is a long one, and the responsibility to monitor what an athlete puts into his/her body rests first and foremost with the player.

FIFA has taken measures to prevent doping in the World Cup by testing 91.5% of players prior to the tournament.  Players were asked to give a benchmark urine and blood sample to examine certain levels of chemicals that would indicate the use of banned substances.  Two players from each team are then randomly selected after each game to give another sample.  Any abnormalities from the second sample will render a red flag.  This method of testing is called a biological passport and it is the first time FIFA is using such methods to monitor doping in the World Cup.  The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Director General, David Howman commented,

We welcome the decision taken by FIFA to carry out this initiative. This is the first time in major sport competition history that participating athletes were systematically tested prior to the competition for the establishment of individual biological profiles including both blood and urine parameters. We encourage other sports to follow suit in adopting the Athlete Biological Passport as an effective means to protecting the rights of the clean athlete.

Other sports indeed have adopted the biological passport including cycling and track and field.  Thus far, FIFA is happy to report that there have been no positive tests of banned substances in the World Cup.  This method of testing was piloted in several of FIFA’s competitions leading up to the 2014 World Cup, including the 2013 FIFA Club World Cup.

Since FIFA instituted anti-doping tests in 2004, positive tests have been extremely low.  According to FIFA’s website, between 2004 and 2009 at least 22,000 footballers were tested each year.  In that time, only 487 athletes, roughly 2%, tested positive for banned substances with 55, or 0.02%, testing positive specifically for anabolic steroids.

Reports indicate that the use of performance enhancing drugs in the soccer world has been and remains extremely low.  Some may point to the fact that soccer is a sport in which the use of performance enhancing substances would only marginally improve player performance.  In soccer, tactical and technical skills have a much greater impact in any given game than speed, strength, and other physical components of the game.  This naivety is the same sort of thinking that reduced the cycling world to rubble.  New York Times sports writer Juliet Macur explains the very real threat of a drug such as erythropoietin (EPO), a drug that tells the body to produce more red bloods cells when there is an oxygen deficiency.  This increase in red blood cells allows for the body to recover more quickly, surely a useful edge to have in the second half, especially in a hot climate like Brazil.

The use of banned substances in soccer is not simply a side effect of the modern scientific age of sports.   Several reports surfaced last year that indicated the 1966 World Cup may have been tainted.  Research done at two universities in Germany discovered that several German players tested positive for ephedrine, a stimulant used for shortness of breath, after their World Cup loss to England.

FIFA is looking forward though and beginning a proactive approach.  Following Costa Rica’s surprising victory over Italy on June 20th to clinch a spot in the knockout stage of the World Cup, FIFA requested a blood and urine sample from seven Costa Rican players following the game.  Since then, the Costa Rican football federation sent a letter to FIFA demanding an explanation for the testing of five more players than necessary.  According to the president of Costa Rica’s selection committee, this sort of action invites fans to doubt Costa Rica’s victory and places a black mark on the team’s success.

FIFPRO, the international union for footballers around the world, continues to advocate for players rights in testing for banned substances.  In December 2013, FIFPRO responded to a new policy from the Belgian government that asked athletes to submit blood samples even outside of competitions.  This requires athletes to be available for these tests through a “whereabouts system” so testers can find athletes.  The Belgian government instituted this policy in a direct response to WADA’s updated code.  According to FIFPRO,

Any athlete on the national testing register (which is effectively any elite athlete in an Olympic or major team sport) must be available to testers for one hour a day, between 0600 and 2300, three months in advance. This is done online and can be updated by email or text message.

FIFPRO argues this type of policy restricts players and violates some of their fundamental freedoms.

Soccer has maintained a positive public image when it comes to anti-doping.  Many professional sports in America such as baseball and football have failed to do so, causing parents to question how safe it is to have their children participating in these sports.  This black eye for these two major sports provides another opportunity for soccer to grow in the United States.  FIFA is certainly doing their part during the World Cup.  The public typically welcomes the integration of technology and science in sports, the only exception being performance enhancing drugs.  This is a battle that sports around the world will face in the coming years.  FIFA will need to continue to lead the charge to keep their record and their athletes clean.

 

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Reporting on the business side of the world's game.