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More Olympic drug testing than ever, but why do we bother?

WADA is determined to wipe out doping at the Olympics, and to bring public opinion along with it. Department for Culture, Media & Sport

More Olympic drug testing than ever, but why do we bother?

From a drug-use control perspective, the 2012 London Olympic Games (LOG) will be the “biggest ever”.

Since the Ben Johnson affair at the 1988 Seoul Olympics there has been a concerted effort to secure a “drug free sport” world. Despite the formation of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in 1999, and its subsequent terrier-like ambition to catch and punish drug cheats, it has only been partially successful.

But, as WADA would most likely say, big problems require big solutions.

The testing

A record number of drug tests will be carried out during the two-and-a-bit weeks of the Games. The LOG testing program will be co-ordinated by London’s King’s College Drug Control Centre, which will be organising the anti-doping drug testing program in a purpose-built facility funded mainly by the international drug supplier GlaxoSmithKline.

Every lab technician will be vetted and accredited by WADA, which is responsible for the global governance of program. Drug testing staff will be analysing more than 6,000 samples for as many as 400 banned substances across a range of pharmacological categories that include anabolic steroids, hormones, stimulants, masking agents, beta-blockers, alcohol, narcotics, and cannabis.

Blood doping tests will also be carried out. The majority of samples taken will be urine, but 1,000 or more will be blood-based.

Bob Stewart talks doping at the Olympics.

There will be more tests done on more substances than ever before, and scientists are keen to implement another test for human growth hormone (HGH), which is sometimes difficult to detect. The first test, called the “isoform approach” was introduced in 2004, and aims to detect synthetic HGH, which differs slightly from the natural hormone produced in the pituitary gland.

While this test can only catch dopers within three days of its use, the new approach, called the “biomarker test”, looks for indirect evidence of HGH use, and can consequently detect HGH doping up to 21 days after use.

The science

The science used to support the testing program will be the most sophisticated ever employed at a major international sporting festival. Gas chromatographs and mass spectrometers will be employed, and will be pushed to their limits by 150 scientists analysing around 500 blood and urine samples per day.

Samples will be loaded into a cartridge, and the “analytes” to be examined will be washed with solvents prior to being screened for prohibited compounds.

One of the most challenging demands for the scientists and lab technicians will be to meet the rapid turnaround time required, with negative results set to take less than 24 hours to be announced.

Your cleaner is watching you

Cleaning? Or checking whether you’re clean? Tiffany Terry

The testing program will involve more reconnaissance and surveillance than ever before. That is to say, the testing will be augmented through information gained from law enforcement agencies, customs, and “cleaners”. Yes, cleaners will be used to report on incidents that look like “inappropriate” substance use by athletes during their time in the Olympic Village.

This is not as silly as it sounds. At the Winter Games in Salt Lake City in 2002, cleaners found blood transfusion equipment in the rubbish of a house rented by the Austrian ski team. Members of the team were subsequently found guilty of using banned substances.

In support of the intelligence gathering model, the chief executive of UK anti-doping, Andy Parkinson, said that law enforcement, customs, and “cleaner” support were essential for ensuring public confidence in the Games, and protecting their “integrity”.

But it will be costly. The purpose-built lab will cost a conservative $40m with running costs adding another $20m. This is more than double WADA’s annual revenue. There are also WADA’s operational costs to consider; this has become problematic as a result of a stagnant budget.

As a result, WADA has pared back its Olympics spending, which has resulted in a down-sizing of the observer team that monitors drug testing, and a cut-back in the outreach program in the athletes’ Village.

Why do we care about drugs in sport?

This massive campaign by the Olympic movement to squeeze drug use out of sport is, at first glance, an honourable thing to do. But it still is not clear as to what ideology drives this evangelical quest to keep sport uncontaminated from drug use.

Whatever’s behind the anti-doping ideology, the public seems to support it. will_cyclist/Flickr

Is it a desire to secure the moral high ground for sport, by restating its view that cheats have no place in sport? Is it mainly about ensuring the health of athletes by providing a harm-free setting in which they can achieve their very best? Or, is it fundamentally about maintaining law and order, and making sure that athletes who transgress the rules are shamed and punished?

Whatever the underlying motivation, it is as clear as the TB vaccination scar on my upper-arm that the Olympic movement is deadly serious about its aim to punish all drug users to within an inch of their sporting lives.

I am equally certain that many athletes who have used banned substances in the lead-up to the Games will attain their quest for medals and fame. The fact of the matter is that no matter how sophisticated the testing is, and how generously funded it is, some athletes will have avoided detection by either using substances with no reliable detection tests currently in place, by using substances sufficiently ahead of testing so as to avoid detection, or by being just plain lucky to not have been tested when using.

In the drug detection game it is clear that while some athletes will be found out, and lose not only medals, but also have their reputations tarnished for life, others will escape the net and get their 15 minutes of sporting fame.