Doping in Sport: Are non-White Athletes Born to Cheat?


A couple years back I took a blood test, and after reading the results the doctor asked me if I had been taking statins without telling her.

I hadn’t, and asked why she asked that question. She said my levels of low density lipoproteins (aka bad cholesterol) were astoundingly low, and registered at levels usually reserved for people on cholesterol-suppressing medication.

No drugs needed over here. My mom’s tests return similarly low readings. Ditto my sisters, even though we consider “crispy” one of the basic food groups.

It’s in the genes.

Not sure we have the mutation drug makers are scrambling to mimic, but it wouldn’t surprise me. We didn’t ask for this trait, and can’t change it. It’s a quirk of heredity that happens to be helpful in a world full of deep-fried goodness.

I suppose if London’s Daily Mail profiled us the headline and subhed would read:

Natural Born Gluttons!

Deformity makes family impervious to fatty foods. Mutant gene said to affect most Blacks, enabling them to make a mockery of cholesterol consumption guidelines.

It’s over-the-top and more than a little misleading; the most inflammatory and least informative way to frame the facts.

And it’s exactly what the Daily Mail did with this story, which purports to explain why many (non-European) athletes can get away with taking steroids.

The answer, the story says, is in the genes.

More specifically, certain lucky human beings have a gene mutation that keeps their bodies’ testosterone/epitestosterone ratio in check — which is crucial, since doping tests detect imbalances between these two hormones.

More than 20 percent of people of African heritage are suspected to possess this gene, compared with just 10 percent of Europeans. And in some Asian countries “a staggering two-thirds of people” carry the gene that can mask doping, the story says.

Japan100m

Naturally born drug-cheating Asians racing to see who gets to scam a hard-working European out of a medal.

From this information the story’s author draws the chilling conclusion that certain athletes have a genetically-endowed doping defence, and will never flunk a drug tests because their bodies will always clean up evidence of steroid use. Honest (mostly European) athletes who lack this “doping impunity gene” are at a competitive disadvantage compared with (non-European) cheaters who use their DNA to skirt doping controls.

The evidence this story puts forward can rattle the very foundations of high-level athletic competitions and, really, that’s the only conclusion a reader can reach. Especially if that reader is:

a) Blinded by cultural bias, or

b) Wilfully blind to how the facts line up.

Otherwise, you could also conclude that this article is a dangerous and no-too-subtly racist example of torquing facts to fit a pre-existing paradigm, and that it sets back rather than advances the debate on doping in sport.

Consider:

1. The gene in question

It pre-dates both doping and drug tests by several hundred thousand years.

If our bodies want to maintain a certain T/E ratio, it makes sense people would have a natural mechanism for keeping these hormones in check, producing more or less of one to balance it with the other. So instead of having a few individuals “born to dope,” it looks more like a lot of us are genetically programmed to do something very normal and natural and healthy.

Keep hormones in balance.

If this ability happens to make it more difficult to screen these people for steroids, that’s an inconvenient side effect of something very innocent. And probably a better place to focus this story.

I didn’t read about this gene and wonder whether it was concentrated in certain racial groups (more on that later). I wanted to know how it functions in the real world of doping and drug tests.

It’s one thing for that gene to kick in when testosterone is naturally elevated, but is it just as effective when you flood your body with synthetic testosterone? If so, what are the limits? And does this ability re-balance the t/e ratio vary by age? By gender? Among people with the gene?

Answering those questions would give readers an idea of what life is like on the front lines of the fight against doping.

Instead, we have an article casting shade on athletes who can’t control being born with this trait any more than they can control the genes that make them elite performers in the first place. Portraying it as a weapon athletes consciously use to beat drug tests falls somewhere between disingenuous and dishonest.

And framing the gene as a rare mutation giving an advantage to a select few competitors?

That theory might stand, except…

2, Numbers Never Lie

Per the report, one in 10 Europeans have this gene, while 22 percent Africans and two-thirds of Asians have an in-born ability to set their t/e ratio back to normal. The article casts these numbers as cause for alarm, suggesting in the first few grafs that athletes of African descent may be using this built-in cheat code to dope, and that Asians are almost assuredly doing it.

I’m no mathematician, but I know 22 percent of any population is a sizeable minority, and two thirds is a pretty decisive majority. Walk into a room where one in five people has a PhD and you’ll feel undereducated. Attend a party where two thirds of attendees are women and there may as well not be any men.

Even among Europeans this trait is about as rare as left-handedness.

Which is to say that this gene isn’t rare at all. Two-thirds of all Asians, plus a fifth of all Africans, plus 10 percent of Europeans, plus 78 percent of people of mixed race equals…what… a couple billion of the planet’s inhabitants?

Whatever the number is, it’s not small in an absolute or relative sense. So remind me again why we’re supposed to be so bothered about something that has existed in so many people for so long.

3. Because awkward attempts to racialize data always lead to faulty conclusions

What, for example, am I supposed to do with a study purporting to show a link between race and a certain gene, but then says this gene appears in seven percent of “Hispanics.” I saw that chart even before I read the story and it immediately tripped my junk science alarm.

Did anybody tell these scientists that anybody of any race can speak any language? Did they consider that each of the other racial groups they laid out — European, Asian, African and Mixed Race — can and does contain “Hispanics.”

pacquiao-marquez-2

Asian Manny Pacquiao probably has the “doping impunity gene.” Marquez? Likely not. he’s “Hispanic.” Wait. Is he Mestizo? Then he has it. Or..is it… I’m confused…

If by “Hispanic” we mean “from Spain,” why aren’t their numbers included among Europeans?

And if “Hispanic” means “speaks Spanish or possibly Portuguese,” what do we make of the mestizos and mulatos who compose the majority of the population in many Latin American countries? Are they likely to possess this gene because they’re racially mixed, or unlikely to have it because they’re “Hispanic”?

I don’t know, and it’s clear whoever concocted these categories never gave it much thought, even though ignoring such an important detail obscures the very information they had hoped to convey.

Sadly, it’s not suprising. Journalists and “scientists” tumble into these traps when they position Europeans as the default and everybody else as the “other.”

Here we have a normal gene with a normal job that’s pretty common among some racial groups but less so among Europeans. And because non-Europeans are the ones with the gene, we’re hustling them off to the laboratory to peer under the hood and figure out what makes them different and deviant.

When Africans and Asians succeed in sport it’s because their genes allow them to dope. But if Europeans can’t keep pace its because cheating is literally not in their DNA.

“You others can have your medals. We have our integrity. We’re not built to cheat.”

White supremacy proven and reinforced even as non-white athletes undermine it. Everyone else losing, even when they win.

This story claims to break new ground, but it the song sounds sadly familiar to me.

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