Baseball’s drug testing: Thorough or easily thwarted?

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As many as 20 Major League Baseball players are expected to face suspensions soon after the all-star break, as part of an ongoing scandal involving performance-enhancing drugs.

The players, including Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers, reportedly were clients of the Biogenesis lab in Florida, which is cooperating after baseball filed a lawsuit.

That raises the question: If 20 players were cheating, how did they not get caught under the toughest drug-testing program in professional sports?

The answer may lie with a high-stakes cat-and-mouse game in which cheaters and enforcers try to gain edges with the latest science.

Much of that effort is focused on the drug of choice for many players: synthetic testosterone. It can be used to build muscle during the off-season or to help aid healing between games. MLB looks for evidence of testosterone doping through screening tests that measure the ratio of testosterone to a related steroid, epitestosterone.

Braun failed such a test in 2011, which showed his T/E ratio was 20:1, far exceeding the league’s red-flag limit of 4:1 and way beyond the 1:1 ratio expected for most men. That triggered a more definitive carbon isotope test that detects synthetic testosterone, which he also failed.

Braun successfully appealed the results, saying his test sample had been handled improperly, and avoided suspension. He has denied using any performance-enhancing drugs. Last week, ESPN reported that Braun — and other players — had not cooperated with MLB investigators.

Some experts argue the T/E ratio test can easily be beaten by using fast-acting or time-released formulations, including injectable pellets that boost testosterone levels while staying under the limit.

A more effective way to catch players using synthetic testosterone would be to use the more definitive and expensive carbon isotope test, said Richard Pound, a Montreal attorney and member of the World Anti-Doping Agency, as well as its former chairman.

“They aren’t really anxious to find all this stuff,” Pound said. “It’s bad for baseball.”

Baseball officials say the league has invested huge amounts of time and money into catching players who cheat.

“The assertion that we don’t want to catch people who are using testosterone is ridiculous,” said Executive Vice President Rob Manfred, who oversees the drug testing program. “People who are saying that have no idea what is going on at Major League Baseball.”

Manfred said the league looks at more than just the T/E ratio in its screening tests and is now doing random carbon isotope tests on at least 10% of samples.

He said at least one player whose T/E ratio was below the 4:1 level has been caught using synthetic testosterone. He declined to reveal the player’s name or details on that case.

Asked if the Biogenesis scandal revealed flaws in the league’s own testing program, since players were finding ways around it, Major League Baseball spokesman Pat Courtney noted that four of the 20 players involved, including Braun, had been previously identified by the league’s testing program.

“The players named in Biogenesis were involved in a very sophisticated plan that was designed to avoid any drug testing program — no matter how good that drug testing program was,” he said in an email.

When players turned to fast-acting testosterone products, which clear quickly from the body, the league changed its testing program, Courtney said. Baseball’s Joint Drug Agreement is negotiated between the league and the players union. The most recent changes, implemented this year, include adding a profiling program that tracks each player’s test results over time and triggers additional tests when new samples deviate a significant amount from the average.

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