The Top Athletes Looking for an Edge and the Scientists Trying to Stop Them

Behind the scenes there will be a high-tech, high-stakes competition between Olympic athletes who use banned substances and drug testers out to catch them

Olympic organizers plan to conduct 5,000 drug tests—an unprecedented number—during the London Games. (Dan Winters)
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DeeDee Trotter was on an airplane in 2006 when she overheard a passenger seated behind her discussing the steroids scandal. Federal investigators in the Balco case, named for a lab that produced supplements, would eventually implicate more than two dozen athletes for the use of performance-enhancing drugs, including Barry Bonds, baseball’s home run king, and Marion Jones, the track-and-field star, who would end up in jail, stripped of five Olympic medals.

“This guy was reading the newspaper and he said, ‘Oh, they’re all on drugs,’” recalls Trotter, a runner who won a gold medal in the 4 x 400 meter relay at the 2004 Olympics. She was furious. “I turned around and said, ‘Hey—excuse me, I’m sorry, but that’s not true. I’m a professional athlete and Olympic gold medalist, and I’m not on drugs. I’ve never even considered it.’ ” Currently vying to join the U.S. team and appear in her third Olympics, Trotter projects a sassy confidence. “It really upset me that it’s perceived that way—that if she runs fast, then she’s on drugs. I hated that and I gave him a little attitude.”

That airplane conversation prompted Trotter to create a foundation called Test Me, I’m Clean! “It gave us clean athletes a chance to defend ourselves,” says Trotter. “If you see someone wearing this wristband”—she holds up a rubbery white bracelet emblazoned with the group’s name—“it means that I am a clean athlete. I do this with hard work, honesty and honor. I don’t take any outside substances.”

As Trotter tells me this story, I catch myself wondering if it’s all just a bunch of pre-emptive PR. It pains me to react this way, but with doping scandals plaguing the past three Summer Olympics and nearly every disgraced athlete insisting, at least initially, that he or she is innocent, it’s hard to take such protestations at face value.

My most profound disillusionment came from a one-time friend, Tyler Hamilton, my teammate on the University of Colorado cycling team. When he won a gold medal in the time trial at the 2004 Olympics, I was thrilled to see someone I’d admired as honest and hardworking reach the top of a sport that had been plagued by doping scandals. But in the days that followed, a new test implicated Hamilton for blood doping. His supporters began hawking “I Believe Tyler” T-shirts, and he took donations from fans to fund his defense. The evidence against him seemed indisputable, but the Tyler I knew in college was not a cheat or liar. So I asked him straight-out if he was guilty. He looked me in the eye and told me he didn’t do it. Last year, after being subpoenaed by federal investigators, Hamilton finally confessed and returned his medal.

The downfall of Olympic heroes has cast a cloud of suspicion over sports. And the dopers’ victims aren’t just the rivals from whom they stole their golden podium moments but every clean athlete whose performance is greeted with skepticism.

Doping, or using a substance to enhance performance, is nothing new. Contrary to romantic notions about the purity of Olympic sports, ancient Greeks ingested special drinks and potions to give them an edge, and at the 1904 Games, athletes downed potent mixtures of cocaine, heroin and strych- nine. For most of Olympic history, using drugs wasn’t considered cheating. Then, in the 1960 Olympics, Danish cyclist Knut Jensen passed out during a race, cracked his skull and later died. The coroner blamed the death on amphetamines, and the case led to anti-doping rules. Drug testing began with the 1968 Games, with a goal to protect athlete health. In addition to short-term damage, certain drugs also appear to increase the risk of heart disease and possibly cancer.

The original intent of anti-doping rules was to prevent athletes from dropping dead of overdoses, but over the years the rules have come to focus just as intently on protecting the integrity of the Games. The complex task of upholding the standards falls to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and its American counterpart, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), established in 1999 and 2000, respectively. These agencies oversee drug testing and work with Olympic organizers to manage testing at the Games.

Previously, testing was carried out by the U.S. Olympic Committee and cases were judged by each sport’s governing body. But governing bodies promote their sports, solicit sponsorship money and help deliver the astounding performances that fans crave. No sport wanted a dirty reputation, and officials were reluctant to tarnish their stars. Though performance-enhancing drugs were prohibited, in some sports the ban was treated the same way many drivers view speed limits—go ahead and speed, just don’t get caught.


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