The use of performance-enhancing substances by Olympic athletes is not new. They range from ground horse hooves or sheeps testicles in ancient times to caffeine and even strychnine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Over the past 50 years, however, the successful efforts of Olympic athletes to set new records have been overshadowed by the influence of performance-enhancing drugs.
Today the substances of concern range from amphetamines and cocaine, through anabolic steroids and diuretics, to beta-blockers and cannabinoids, as well as newer substances like erythropoietin and human growth hormone, used as relaxants, stimulants, muscle builders, stamina enhancers, pain maskers and weight reducers.
At the 1960 Rome Olympics, a Danish cyclist died as a result of taking amphetamines. As a result, in 1963 the International Olympic Committee developed its first list of prohibited substances, and formal drug testing was introduced at the 1968 Winter Games in Grenoble. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, however, only one athlete was disqualified in Grenoble for taking a banned substance – beer.
The problem has been exacerbated by the money that has flowed into sport through sponsorship deals and prize money. The size of the problem grew rapidly during the 1970s and 1980s and the race began between the takers of performance enhancing drugs and those trying to control their use.
At the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, Canadian champion sprinter Ben Johnson was shown to have used the anabolic steroid stanozolol and was stripped of his 100m gold medal. He was later banned for life by the International Associations of Athletics Federations (IAAF) after being tested positive for excess testosterone in 1993.
The most publicised recent case was that of American track athlete Marion Jones, who in October 2007 pleaded guilty to lying to US federal prosecutors in 2003 about her use of steroids and in January 2008 was sentenced to a six-month prison sentence, two years’ probation and community service. She was also stripped of her five Olympic medals from the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
After the 2004 Olympics in Athens, prompted by the case of the two Greek sprinters Kostas Kederis and Katerina Thanou, the IAAF reviewed the level of drug taking and the action being taken to curb it. According to the Australian newspaper The Age, in an internal IAAF memo it was admitted that its own anti-doping measures had failed to tackle the problem, as many national associations were protecting offenders.
Speaking at the third World Conference on Doping held in Madrid in November 2007, president of the International Olympic Committee Jacques Rogge emphasised that the IOC was strengthening its ‘zero tolerance’ policy. ‘The measures include a denial of participation in the next Olympic Games for athletes and their entourage who have been sanctioned for more than six months. We will impose automatic suspensions after a positive A sample, stronger financial penalties for National Olympic Committees and athletes, and implement stricter interpretations related to therapeutic use exemptions.’
In the UK, through the Drug-Free Sport initiative, every athlete representing the UK at the Beijing Olympics will have been subject to drug testing that is being funded by UK Sport, which was formed in 1996. UK Sport is accountable through the UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport and is responsible for managing and distributing public funds including those raised by the National Lottery.
Among the most difficult substances that the testers will looking for are erythropoietin (EPO) and human growth hormone (HGH).
EPO, usually prescribed for the treatment of anaemia resulting from kidney failure, encourages the growth of more red blood cells, giving blood a greater capacity to carry oxgen.
When used by athletes, EPO use can provide greater endurance by increasing oxygen availability within their muscles, however, in healthy patients it can thicken the blood sufficiently to cause a heart attack. EPO has been difficult to detect with standard testing regimes, and pharmaceutical developments like darbepoetin alfa, a synthetic version of EPO, produced by Amgen as Aranesp, increase the difficulty.
HGH, which is produced by the pituitary gland, was first isolated in 1956 and in 1959 it was first used in the UK to treat children withstunted growth. Originally the only source of HGH was human corpses, but genetic engineering and pharmaceutical advances in gene therapy have made synthetic HGH readily available to increase muscle size and aid the recovery of tired muscles in athletes that need short bursts of strength. HGH was banned by the IOC in 1989 and its use is difficult to detect even with the latest techniques.
Commenting on the 2008 Olympics shortly after his appointment at the beginning of 2008, the head of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), John Fahey, a former Australian finance minister, told BBC TV: ‘The chances of getting caught, for those that want to cheat, are greater than ever before. The tests will be more significant than at any other Olympics. They [the Chinese authorities] have done an enormous amount of work, putting in resources in terms of highly-trained personnel and money. And the laboratory, from what I’m told, is of the highest standards.’
Some 11000 athletes are expected to attend the Beijing Olympics, and the organisers have said they will be testing a record number through 41 testing stations spread across the Olympic Village and the competition sites. The most commonly tested biological sample is urine because it is easier to collect adequate volumes and collection is non-invasive. Drug and metabolite levels are also higher in urine than other sample types. Some drugs are difficult to detect in urine, however, so blood samples may be tested. Procedures will be in place to ensure that the athletes provide genuine samples. An estimated 4500 athletes are expected to be tested, a 25% increase over numbers tested during the 2004 event and 90% more than in Sydney at the 2000 Olympics.
To meet these increased testing demands, a new laboratory has been established in Beijing as part of the China Anti-Doping Agency (CADA), which was formally established in November 2007 as the successor to the China Doping Control Center. CADA was accredited by the IOC between 1989 and 2003 and since 2004 by WADA. It is now one of the largest and most technologically advanced testing facilities in the world. ‘China has quickly become a world model for anti-doping efforts,’ said Du Lijun, CADA director.
Located in the National Olympic Center, CADA’s new 6000m3 anti-doping Beijing laboratory has been set up with a regular staffing of 60 including 20 experts carrying out drug testing on a daily basis. This will be increased to 150 during the Olympics, including up to 20 overseas experts who are being invited to join the workforce. The laboratory staff will work in three shifts daily to ensure negative results are available within 24 hrs, with positive results within 48 hrs.
Three key technologies are used for the testing: liquid chromatography (LC), gas chromatography (GC) and mass spectroscopy (MS), and Californian instrumentation specialist Agilent Technologies has supplied the new laboratory with 18 LC/MS units and 19 GC/MS units. ‘We are proud of our relationship with China’s anti-doping efforts, which date back to the 1980s,’ said Mike McMullen, vice president and general manager of Agilent’s chemical analysis solutions unit. ‘This highly critical application demands a high level of trust, not just in the technology, but also in the level of support to be certain that the lab is completely reliable in every way.’
In addition to providing test equipment for every Olympics since 1972 when testing was introduced, Agilent has also been involved in the development of methods for detecting banned substances. As part of the preparations for the 2008 Olympics Agilent has hosted three leadership delegations from the CADA. The meetings have included technical training on the instrumentation and methods that Agilent has developed.
In addition to intentional use of banned drugs, the Chinese authorities have also taken steps to avoid inadvertent use. All pharmaceutical producers have been ordered to label medicines that contain stimulants and pharmacies and drugstores told not to sell such products without the relevant labelling, according to Wu Zhen, vice director of the State Food & Drug Administration in March 2008.
But drugs are not the only aspects that the Chinese authorities are concerned about. Athletes are being asked to be careful about food that they eat, especially outside the Olympic Village in Beijing to avoid unintentional intake of stimulants. ‘Food and beverages that non-athletes can consume without consequences may be unsafe for athletes,’ according to Cai Tongyi, a nutrition professor at the China Agricultural University and a member of the food safety panel. Chinese cuisine will make its debut on the Olympic menu in 2008. However, Chinese delicacies such as those prepared from the internal organs of animals will not be available in view of potential problems. ‘Chinese cuisine is famous for its rich ingredients and delicate condiments, but the more ingredients the food contains, the more risks it might have,’ said Cai Tongyi.
The Beijing Food Safety Administration plans to oversee the entire process of food availability within the Olympic Village. It has been estimated that more than 75 000L of milk, 330t of fruit and vegetables, 82t of seafood, 750L of ketchup, 131t of meat, 21t of cheese and 3m bottles of beverages are likely to be consumed by athletes, coaches, officials and journalists. ‘All the procedures involving Olympic food, including production, processing, packaging, storage and transportation will be closely monitored,’ said Sun Wenxu, from the the State Administration for Industry & Commerce.
But whatever the source of the doping, cheats will be exposed in Beijing. ‘Whether an athlete accidentally intakes stimulants or knowingly uses banned substances, we will publicly announce positive test results as required by the IOC and the WADA,’ said Zhao Jian, a member of the organiser’s anti-doping committee.