Floyd Landis: Synthetic Victory?
In 2006, American Floyd Landis stunned the cycling world when he won that year’s Tour de France. Even more stunning was his failure to pass doping tests, which resulted in the stripping of his crown as the 2006 Tour’s winner. It was an incident that further highlighted sports doping particularly in cycling which have been rocked by scandals for years.
Landis won the National Off-Road Bicycle Association (NORBA) junior championship when he was 17. The Pennsylvanian-born Landis, now 32, was formerly with the US Postal team, riding alongside the legendary Lance Armstrong (7 times Tour champion) from 2002-2004. He however moved to the Phonak Hearing Systems team the next year, the same team he competed under in the 2006 Tour.
Landis urine sample apparently tested positive in the doping test conducted after the 17th lap of the Tour. Landis’ testosterone/epitestosterone (T/E) ratio was found to be 11:1, way above the maximum ratio allowed by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
The T/E ratio is one of the common methods used to determine testosterone abuse by athletes. In healthy adult males, the T/E ratio is normally 1:1, though there are individuals who have been found to have exceptionally high testosterone, giving as high as a 10:1 ratio. The WADA and most national anti-doping agencies set the allowable T/E ratio at 4:1.
Epitestosterone is an inactive natural steroid produced by the body, differing only from testosterone at the 17th carbon atom. It is believed that epitestosterone is similarly formed in the body as testosterone, half of the production of which comes from the testis. Studies show that the epitestosterone level is not affected when exogenous (originating from outside the body) testosterone is administered to a person. Thus, a high testosterone to epitestosterone ratio was considered a possible sign of testosterone abuse.
In Landis case, both A and B samples returned positive results, although controversy surrounds many aspects of the testing process, including possible mishandling of the samples, undue haste in the release of the initial result and the testing of the second sample and doubtful integrity of the laboratory that conducted both tests. Landis vehemently denied using performance enhancing drugs and insisted that the high testosterone in his blood is due to natural causes.
Among the reasons advanced by Landis team is that the cyclist had a naturally high testosterone, alcohol drinking, dehydration, use of a thyroid medication, and conspiracy against Landis. However, experts debunked many of these claims, particularly the natural occurrence theory, as such a huge jump in the testosterone level cannot at all be natural.
Further test of Landis’ sample A using Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometry (IRMS) revealed synthetic testosterone in his body. The detection of synthetic testosterone indicates that some of his testosterone came from an exogenous source and was not naturally produced by his own body as he claimed. It was widely believed that Landis was using testosterone for a long time, successfully evading detection by masking (using exogenous epitestosterone so that the T/E ratio is maintained) or diluting the hormone. It was even surmised that Landis committed a grave mistake on his doping program on that fateful day.
Many people simply can’t reconcile with reality the awesome feats shown by Landis during the tour, in which he was a dark horse contender. In the first and seventh stages, he had problems with his bicycle yet he managed to stay near the top. From the 7th - 12th stage of the race, he was the overall leader but lost the jersey when he finished badly on Stage 13. He regained the yellow jersey on Stage 15 but quickly lost it the next day when he bonked (became exhausted due to glycogen depletion) and lost 10 minutes. At that point, Landis was 8 minutes behind the leader, Oscar Pereiro, and few people believed that he could win that Tour. Then the unbelievable happened on Stage 17. Landis performed a solo, 120 km breakaway that stunned not just spectators but even fellow cyclists. He virtually erased Pereiro’s lead, and was just 30 seconds behind the leader going into the final stage. In stage 19, he outperformed Pereiro in the time trial by 89 seconds, thereby getting back the jersey and the crown.
After the tests results were released, Landis was the subject of investigation by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) which found him guilty of doping in September 2007, forfeited his Tour victory, and suspended him for two years. Landis appealed the decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which affirmed in June 2008 USADA’s decision.