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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The creation of independent testing agencies changed all that, says USADA’s Travis Tygart. “We said, we’re not going to allow the culture to be different than what the rules are—that kind of moral relativism won’t be tolerated.” Tygart joined the agency in 2002 as director of legal affairs and became CEO in 2007. Although he’s officially a rule-enforcer, he says that his number one job is “to ensure the integrity of competition, and uphold the rights of clean athletes.”

WADA’s prohibited list currently includes more than 200 banned substances and methods:

Anabolic steroids: Made famous by bodybuilders who use them to bulk up, anabolic steroids can also enhance recovery and allow endurance athletes to train harder with less rest. They’re easily detectable in urine tests, so athletes use them in micro-doses on days they’re unlikely to be tested. The Balco (Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative) case involved a steroid called “the clear” designed to evade detection. After a track coach sent anti-doping officials a sample of the drug, scientists developed a specific test for it. The scandal implicated several dozen athletes.

Blood doping: Increasing the blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity can improve muscle performance and enhance endurance by as much as 15 percent. The original technique was for an athlete to withdraw blood and freeze it, then re-inject some just prior to competition. The strategy became easier in 1989 with the approval of erythropoietin (EPO) as a medical treatment for anemia based on a naturally occurring hormone that spurs red blood cell production. When experts learned to detect illicit EPO use by athletes, dopers changed their doses to evade the test. In 2004, researchers unveiled a test to detect a blood transfusion from a donor—which is how Tyler Hamilton was caught blood doping at the 2004 Tour of Spain and the 2004 Athens Olympics. Scientists are currently working on a test to identify transfusions of the athlete’s own blood from chemicals that leach into blood during storage.

Hormones: Because they’re produced naturally in the body, insulin, IGF-1 and human growth hormone are some of the most difficult substances to detect. Elite athletes have used them illicitly to increase muscle mass and speed recovery. Insulin has become popular in recent years, but taken in the wrong dose, it can kill. Sprinter and three-time Olympic medalist Alvin Harrison received a four-year suspension in 2004 after admitting to using six performance-enhancing drugs, including insulin and human growth hormone. (He kept his Olympic medals, which he won before the admitted doping.)

Asthma medications: Also known as beta-2 agonists, salmeterol and clenbuterol act as muscle-building agents if taken in large doses. The drugs are detectable in urine. Last summer, David Clinger received a lifetime ban from cycling for testing positive for clenbuterol during an out-of-competition test conducted near the end of his two-year ban for testosterone and the stimulant modafinil.

Hormone antagonists or modulators: Dopers who take steroids or hormones can trip up their bodies’ natural hormone balances, so they may take substances to counteract these reactions. A large dose of testosterone may stimulate a body to produce additional estrogen, with unwanted results in men such as enlarged breasts. USADA slapped Houston-based cyclist Mitch Comardo with a two-year suspension in 2009 after he tested positive for tamoxifen, a drug that blocks estrogen.

Experimental substances: To stay ahead of testers, cheaters regularly turn to drugs still in development, often obtaining them on the black market. WADA is partnering with the pharmaceutical industry to develop tests to detect experimental drugs. In November 2009, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced sanctions against five 2008 Olympians for using CERA, a third-generation EPO drug.

Olympic organizers plan to conduct 5,000 drug tests—an unprecedented number—during the London Games. Nearly half of the 14,000 athletes competing, including all medalists, will be taken aside after their event and brought to a private testing room. There, they’ll produce a urine or blood sample under an anti-doping official’s watch. The athlete will label, sign and seal the samples before they’re sent to a state-of-the-art, WADA-certified facility directed by scientists at King’s College London.


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