Developing a test for match fixing, an illustrative example

Match fixing may not be the first topic that springs to mind when thinking about the problem of doping and what to do about it. But it is a useful one. It forces the discussion to step well outside of the usual box. The reason of course is that nobody expects match fixing to be detectable in blood or urine samples. Instead, any test for match fixing will have to look for markers of the memory of match fixing or the cognitive manipulation necessary to conceal this information. This cognitive manipulation, commonly known as deception, is thought to be the most detectable component of these illegal/unacceptable behaviors. Without other alternatives, it is an obvious choice to develop and test for match fixing based on the detection of deception.

Early work in deception testing focused on monitoring simple physiological parameters that change in response to deception. The most well known test of course is the polygraph. Like the bio-passport, the polygraph monitored simple physiological markers that do respond to the target of the testing. Also like the bio-passport the polygraph parameters respond to various other factors as well. The end result is a test that often “works,” but is a far from ideal balance between sensitivity and specificity. Further, because of the simplicity and non-specific nature of the parameters, both tests are generally regarded as beatable with simple interventions that manipulate the markers.

Research in deception testing has moved forward with the more recent development of cognition-based testing. The basic premise of this class of tests is that the process of telling a lie is more mentally complex or challenging than telling the truth. One of the new methods from this class that has done particularly well in mock-crime experiments is Occular-motor Deception Testing. In OMDT a special optical scanner is used to track differences in pupil diameter, fixations, and reading/rereading time in response to true false questions. The OMDT technology is now available commercially as EyeDetect through Converus. Converus puts the accuracy of their product at 85% from controlled mock-crime experiments. Converus expects better results as the consequences increase in real world application.

For purposes of Clean Protocol, deception testing such as OMDT is a particularly attractive option for several reasons. The first is the flexibility. Since the target of the test is deception, the technology could potentially be adapted to address nearly any banned method or behavior. This flexibility opens up the possibility of going after previously un-testable issues such as match fixing or the facilitation of doping. Possibly even more important however is the broad detection window. Instead of the 6-8 hour glow times common with EPO micro-dosing, the window does not close for deception until the truth comes out. As a result, OMDT would potentially be the first anti-banned methods test that could be expected to be effective on an annual or pre-event only testing schedule. Lastly, the EyeDetect system produced by Converus is commercially available now.

Like any test, deception such as OMDT is not perfect and has its limitations. OMDT falls into the expanding omics branch of indirect detection which includes the bio-passport. This class of tests will always bring out creative explanations of how the test got it wrong. Similarly, these tests will never have a perfect ground truth to validate against. Elite athletes in competition can not be put under perfectly controlled conditions, nor can real-world conditions be perfectly simulated in the lab setting. Instead, these tests will always have to generalize out from laboratory or un-controlled field conditions. Fortunately the bio-passport cases have gone a long way to demonstrate that omics methods will stand up to both legal and public perception challenges despite these limitations.

In summary, match fixing is a problem in sport that forces a rethink of the traditional approaches to enforcing rules and ethical adherence. Using match fixing as an example, it is easier to see why OMDT is a leading candidate test for a project like Clean Protocol. OMDT could open up the flexibility to detect any banned method or behavior,  create a theoretically unlimited detection window, and is commercial availability through Converus. The limitations of indirect testing  including the need to generalize out from a related ground truth are acknowledged and accepted following the precedent set by the bio-passport. The ultimate success of such technologies will be determined by their results in upcoming real-world applications such as anti-doping.