As athletes flocked to Beijing to compete in the Olympics, teams of scientists were already starting around-the-clock marathon of drug testing to keep the Games free of illicit athletic enhancement.
The experts are part of a passionate and growing international scientific community running a year-round endurance race to develop tests for new doping techniques as fast as the crafty drug suppliers can develop them.
No Olympiad has ever seen as intensive a drug screening programme as the Beijing Games. The China anti-doping agency alone will conduct 4,500 tests, according to a comprehensive review of the testing programme by Marc Reisch in Chemical and Engineering News online issue being released on Monday.
Keeping tabs: Cuban athlete Yunior Diaz at the Wada centre at the Olympic village on Sunday. Athletes were at the centre to learn from a campaign aiming to eradicate cheating that has tainted elite sport. (Photo: Gil Cohen Magen/Reuters)
China’s $10 million (Rs42 crore) lab in the Beijing Olympic Sports Center is stuffed with mass spectrometers, gas chromatography instruments and other equipment, Reisch said.
But authorities say it’s still a challenge to detect all possible variations of prohibited drugs with tests valid enough to stand up to legal scrutiny if an athlete appeals a suspension for doping.
“Drug users and their assistants are working round the clock to beat analytical scientists,” Don Catlin, an anti-doping leader on the scene in Beijing, told the journal.
But the competition between the scientists and their opponents won’t end when the Beijing flame goes out.
Researchers may rewrite the record books of the Beijing Games in years to come. The new tests they are developing may reveal performance-enhancing compounds in blood or urine samples kept in storage long after the Games.
Already, disgraced Olympians have been forced to surrender their medals. The triumphs of Marion Jones at the 2000 Games were erased after Catlin figured out how to identify the “designer steroid” she was accused of taking as an alleged client of the notorious Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, also known as Balco, in Burlingame, California.
Some officials who have devoted themselves to the anti-doping fight don’t seem to focus their wrath on athletes who risk their health and reputations for a competitive edge.
“I think even more alarming are the manipulative, coercive, subversive individuals in sports who encourage illicit drug use,” said Andrew Pipe, who helped found Canada’s anti-doping agency after the nation’s Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal in 1988 based on signs of steroid use.
The Balco lab, whose federal investigation accelerated the growth of anti-doping efforts, distributed a steroid specifically designed by a rogue chemist to evade testing.
Scientists are trying to refine tests for such known threats, including steroids, growth hormones and EPO, or erythropoietin, which is used to boost endurance by stimulating the production of red blood cells.
But authorities fear that drug suppliers soon will move beyond steroids and stimulants and make use of cutting-edge biotechnology techniques such as gene therapy and chemical gene inhibition.
For example, crooked athletes might inject extra genes that help create EPO in the body. Dr Pipe said sports doping will never be eradicated. But he said the odds are higher that it can be reduced by increased coordination among governments and units such as the US Anti-Doping Agency and the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada).
©2008/THE NEW YORK TIMES