Performance enhancing drugs in rowing?

So, this happened

Big Phil

Snapped at the Lee Valley Velodrome on Dec 9th last year, the man on the right is Adam Neil, current British Rowing Indoor Champion who pulls a handy 5 min and 48 second 2000m ergo and is a member of the hopefully resurgent Great Britain Mens 8+. He is about 6’10” tall and weighs…. a lot. The man standing next to Adam Neil and making him look normal, is also the man who wrote this Instagram post. He is Phil Clapp, and he is currently one of the very few men who has pulled a sub 1’13” 500m test on the ergo. His PB of 1’12.8″ is a British record and world 20-29 age group record. He has a his fair share of experience on the ergo having reached a World Junior Rowing Championships final in the GB junior quad in 2007.

Now the obvious question is why a man of Mr. Clapp’s talent and experience is not fighting his way onto the GB squad. Well partly because he sails boats for a living as a grinder (no nothing like that stop being dirty) and apparently because his spine does not have the same powers of endurance as his quadriceps. As a compromise he has decided to specialize in the Concept 2 distances of the 1 minute and 500m Sprints. Interest in the quarter distance was originally kicked off by Australian international squad member Leo Young, in 1991 and due to the borderline invincibility of this figure, it was not really followed up, in the UK at least, until 2007 when the mighty (and vomit prone, if you ever race next to him, fall off the erg away from him, otherwise it could get messy,) Rob Smith decided to chance his hand. His initial 1’15” and 1’14 ish British Record efforts now seems a little tame by today’s standard, but try holding that pace for 100m from a rolling start. If you can even hit the split, you are doing well.

And the increasing prevalence and relevance of the Ergo sprint distances led bigphil90 to write the above (and below) missive.

…..Only disappointment of the day was that I was not subjected to doping control testing by @ukantidoping ; I am proud to say I ensure everything I put in my body is clean. For indoor rowing to keep growing as a sport and to negate questions as to whether people are or aren’t doping there needs to be more testing. From what I could find out yesterday it appeared not a single athlete from the 500m events was tested; as a more power orientated distance this is likely to attract individuals who do not wish to play by the same rules that others adhere to. 

Although 500m is not the Olympic distance and some rowers question why bother with the 500m instead of the 2k, it is part of how indoor rowing is growing as a sport and gets individuals involved that would not be interested in the 2k event.

I hope in future this will not happen again and testing will be implemented over the sprint distance events in addition to the 2k events.

When someone of this talent and success is positively asking for more testing, he is either very worried about other guys in the same event, or is a very shrewd PR operator looking to deflect criticism early. But this request and demand made me sit down and do some real thinking about this question, not least of all because it relates to the use of, or apparent lack of use of  Performance Enhancing Drugs in rowing.

For some time the drugginess of rowing both on a domestic, national and international level has been considered by British participants to be something of an apparent outlier in modern endurance sport. Mainly because there seems to have been so little of it. Since 2004 World rowing has sanctioned 30 rowers and the Russian Rowing Federation as a whole (no real surprise there,) for Anti-Doping rule violations. This list is not exhaustive as it does not include suspensions made via national federations (add at least two Headington Road Young Offenders Institure rowers (which makes you think really) and two top end Italian men’s rowers, whose sins seemed worse than the party and study drug habit of the HRYOI. ) Despite the gaps in the story it is still instructive compare to cycling’s list of shame, where 43 cyclists were banned in 2006 alone. In the same theme the contrast between athletics and rowing seems to speak highly to rowing’s comparative honor an integrity. Since 2004 more people whose name begins with the letter “S” have been banned from athletics than those who have been banned from Rowing. Rowing, it seems has less of a drug problem that equivalent Olympic sports.

Or does it?

A better source of evidence is WADA itself and their annual reports where they are kind enough to break down each sport by tests taken and test scores failed. They do this every year going back to about 2003. The report does not make quite as happy reading as it should. On the face of it 0.6% of all tests producing an adverse analytical finding (aaf) in rowing in 2016 seems pretty good, but it it doesn’t exactly make us seem that innocent in comparison to cycling who sent back 1.1% aaf’s. If we want a longitudinal survey, this frankly brilliant article has created a little graphical tool (about halfway down the article) that tracks the percentage of aaf’s per sport between 2003 and 2010. Yes, we were consistently better than Cycling, Boxing, Weightlifting and Triathlon (the main offenders, bouncing between 2-4%) across two Olympic Games and one full Olympiad, but we were no better than swimming and athletics for much of the time (0.5-1.6%), and occasionally worse.

Ladies and gentlemen, the idea that the sport of rowing confers upon its participants an indestructible air of innocent Corinthian idealism is bullshit!

We have, among our midst, those who would cheat their way to a greater erg score and a higher finishing place in the next race, and shake your hand afterwards, smiling as they did so. Rowing is not the worst for this but it is far from the best. Is there nuance* to be found in the WADA reports? Yes absolutely, but we must stop thinking of ourselves a a breed apart from other sportsmen and women and start thinking about how we defend ourselves and our honestly achieved results from the cheats.

In my next post I shall go a little further and explain how to view the modern exponents of indoor rowing in particular, in a skeptical and more scientific light than before, and quite possibly prevent you from spending money and time on poor advice from people who have presented their own enhanced performances as evidence for the effectiveness of their training and coaching programme.

*The nuance I detected in the WADA reports was the findings returned by the use of the more advanced tests available to international drug testers. Most tests are based on a the use of Mass Spectrometry to detect tiny traces of broken down Anabolic Steroids in an athlete’s Urine Sample. Famously these tests are only good for known anabolic steroids and for substances not endogenous to the human body. Thus the process is not very good for Testosterone, Human Growth Hormone, and Erythropoietin. There are separate, more advanced, and more expensive techniques that are used to detect these substances. They are often used in intelligence led, directed tests upon athletes who have produced suspicious results that cannot be classed as aaf’s; and for athletes who have produce bizarrely powerful performances. My cursory reading of the 15 or so, 200 plus page long reports, indicates that that rowers are subjected to, and fail, these tests at a much lower rate than the cyclists, weightlifters, boxers and triathletes of the world. Roughly a quarter of the rate.


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