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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This year’s tests will screen for more than 240 illegal substances, from growth hormones to asthma medications to experimental drugs not yet on the market. It sounds impressive, but competition-day testing is not especially effective. Many performance-enhancing drugs aren’t used during competition but during training. Athletes can easily load up on anabolic steroids to increase their muscle mass and allow themselves to work harder during training, then stop before an event to test clean, says Daniel Eichner, executive director of the WADA-accredited Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory in Salt Lake City. Similarly, EPO continues to enhance performance long after the drug can be detected in the body.

For this reason, out-of-competition testing has become a cornerstone of WADA’s approach. Athletes must keep anti-doping agencies apprised of their whereabouts via a confidential system they can access from the Internet and smartphones. Testers, in turn, target athletes during the times they’re most likely to dope, such as pre-season training periods and the weeks leading up to competition. “Our testing is now very strategic,” Tygart says. “We have two goals—maximum deterrence and maximum detection.”

Through candid discussions with reformed dopers, officials keep tabs on the unexpected ways that illicit drug users enhance performance. For instance, they’ve learned that power jocks like weight lifters and sprinters wanting to bulk up aren’t the only ones using steroids. Endurance athletes such as marathon runners and distance swimmers use them, at low doses, to train harder with less rest. Revelations like these have changed USADA’s approach.

“Traditionally, anti-doping was reactionary,” Eichner says. “They would wait for a drug to be brought on the market, and then they would think, well, maybe athletes are using it, so we better prohibit it and then work out a test.” WADA has spent more than $54 million to date on anti-doping research to predict and prepare for new drugs that might enhance performance.

The agency can also catch past cheaters. WADA rules permit samples to be stored for up to eight years so they can be subjected to new tests that are developed well after an event. The IOC will soon retest samples from the 2004 Games. This kind of retrospective testing cost Rashid Ramzi his 1,500-meter run gold medal from the 2008 Olympics after he came up positive for CERA months after the Games had ended. Had Ramzi known that the test was imminent, he might have abstained. Because CERA was covered under WADA’s detailed list of prohibited substances and methods, the agency could unveil its new test without fanfare, a strategy meant to keep dopers on the defensive.

WADA’s most ambitious project yet is what the agency calls a biological passport—a type of physiological profile used to spot subtle signs of doping. Traditional tests are like police radar—easily avoided if you know when to be on the lookout, Eichner says. The passport, by contrast, doesn’t detect doping products themselves, but the physiological changes they provoke. “Instead of trying to catch you speeding,” Eichner says, “we measure how long it takes to get from Point A to Point B, and then calculate how fast you were going.” Researchers have three types of passports in the works: for blood boosting, steroids and hormones.

The blood passport, which was developed first, analyzes blood samples over the course of a season to flag discrepancies that indicate doping. For instance, the passport tracks levels of newly formed red blood cells, called reticulocytes. Taking a drug like EPO that promotes red blood cell production creates a rapid increase in reticulocyte numbers, while blood transfusions cause reticulocytes to drop, as the body shuts down its own blood cell production. Hemoglobin, a molecule that carries oxygen in the blood, also rises and falls in response to various blood-doping regimens, so testers can keep tabs on its levels to look for signs of doping.

Passports make doping more difficult, but they won’t entirely eliminate it, Eichner says. “The passport catches a lot of people, but it’s clear that some athletes have adapted to the program and have found ways to avoid triggering any flags.” History has shown that every new test spurs a workaround.

“We’re fighting the dark side,” WADA director general David Howman told reporters at a meeting of the Partnership for Clean Competition in New York City last December. “Marion Jones competed for seven years without one positive test result. For seven years, she said, ‘I’m clean, I’ve been tested more than any other athlete in the world,’” Howman says, adding: “Just because you’re tested, doesn’t mean you’re clean, we know that.”


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