Hair drug and alcohol testing in sport: What do you need to know?

John Wicks

John Wicks

on Oct 16, 2017

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What do Justin Gatlin, Lance Armstrong and the Russian athletics team have in common?

Answer: they’ve all contributed to a fall in the numbers of fans who believe in the integrity of the sporting world.

In 2017, UK Anti-Doping organised the first Clean Sport Week to help to fight cheats. UKAD research reveals that 48% of UK adults believe that doping is widespread in sport, while two-thirds stated that high-profile accounts of drug usage by elite performers has eroded their faith in sport.

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Both recreational drug use and controlled substances are involved in doping. In both cases, hair testing for drugs and alcohol testing can be used to prove usage, and clear sportspeople incorrectly accused of alcohol or drug-related crimes – in turn, helping turn around sports’ ailing image.

Recreational drug use

With sports stars earning more and being under more pressure than ever before, it is unsurprising that many high-profile sportspeople succumb to the temptation of recreational drugs and alcohol. From Diego Maradona’s public battles with cocaine and alcohol to Michael Phelps’ history of alcohol and marijuana usage, any form of recreational drug use can have a devastating impact on an elite sportsperson’s public image – whether usage occurs during competition (Maradona) or off-duty (Phelps).

Today, however, testing in sports generally uses blood or urine samples, offering evidence of short-term usage only.

Hair testing, on the other hand, can provide an accurate picture of an individual’s current and long-term substance use. This establishes whether drug usage was a one-off or part of a more serious pattern of regular abuse. If Paul Gascoigne’s drug and alcohol problems had been discovered sooner, steps could have been taken to provide the footballer with necessary support.

Hair testing can also establish whether a positive test is a result of external contamination rather than actual use, thereby helping prevent unnecessary scandal.

In 2009, the case of tennis player Richard Gasquet demonstrated the difference that hair testing can make. A urine test the day after a night in a club came back positive for cocaine in a case that swept the worldwide media and saw Gasquet facing a two-month suspension. Discovering that the trace registered represented less than a tenth of a line of cocaine, Gasquet underwent a hair test which showed no traces of cocaine.

The International Tennis Federation accepted the explanation that external contamination had occurred as a result of Gasquet kissing a woman, identified as “Pamela”. Gasquet was cleared in the December of the same year and returned to play - but by this point, the media scandal had tarnished his reputation. If a hair test had been used at the outset, Gasquet’s case would never have been publicised.

Controlled substances

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) releases an annual list of banned substances: substances that are banned at all times, those banned in-competition, and those banned in certain sports. Most testing - from the UK to the US - uses urine or blood testing, which can detect some substances that hair can’t screen for. But could hair testing also be on the cards for the future of sport?

Calls for a change to testing procedures date back as far as 1998, when prominent hair testing expert Dr. Pascal Kintz highlighted the many benefits of hair testing.WADA President Craig Reedie himself suggested a shift to hair testing back in 2013.

In Australia, former national rugby captain Brad Fittler has called for National Rugby League hair tests, after a former player admitted drug usage throughout his career.

While there may be limitations regarding the number of controlled substances that hair tests can detect, there are significant benefits to its use in the sports industry. Instead of detecting only recent usage, hair testing provides an accurate picture of long-term controlled substance abuse. This makes it harder for athletes to employ tactics like providing fake samples or giving wrong addresses to avoid testing. Hair tests span several months: delaying one test may be possible, but a rescheduled test will still pick up longer-term drug usage.

A hair drug test for performance-enhancing drugs does have its limitations, but used in conjunction with existing sports-testing regimes, the method could validate or deny blood and urine test results to provide a higher degree of accuracy - whether conducted by the body itself, or organised by the sports stars and their management.

This - the route that Gasquet took - would not disprove the results of the primary test, but would provide additional evidence for the critical decision the respective sports bodies are then required to make. Hair strand testing for alcohol and drugs can also help governing bodies to spot patterns of abuse and help sportspeople to get the treatment they require  – and ultimately put the sports industry back into the positive light it once enjoyed.

A guide to workplace drug & alcohol testing

Picture credit:

Pixabay - no attribution needed

John Wicks

John Wicks

John Wicks is one of the UK's leading experts in drug testing and has been for over 25 years. He is CEO and co-founder of Cansford Laboratories, a drug and alcohol testing laboratory based in South Wales. John is one of the ‘original expert minds’ who alongside co-founder Dr Lolita Tsanaclis, is responsible for bringing hair testing to the UK.

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