NPR logo

Bid To Catch Olympic Dopers May Fail

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/92426973/92427791" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Bid To Catch Olympic Dopers May Fail

Sports

Bid To Catch Olympic Dopers May Fail

Bid To Catch Olympic Dopers May Fail

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/92426973/92427791" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

World Anti-Doping Agency President John Fahey speaks at a press conference in Sydney, Australia, in April. Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images

World Anti-Doping Agency President John Fahey speaks at a press conference in Sydney, Australia, in April.

Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images

One of the major events at the Beijing Olympics will take place out of sight — in a laboratory. It's the competition between athletes who cheat and the scientists trying to catch them. Doping tests have come a long way in recent years, but dopers always seem to stay a few strides ahead.

This summer, the International Olympic Committee plans to conduct 4,500 doping tests in Beijing — the most ever conducted at an Olympic Games. The head of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), John Fahey, even put out a video to declare his confidence in those tests.

"If the cheats turn up, I am satisfied that they are more likely to be caught at these Olympics than in any other Olympics in its history," Fahey said.

But he stopped short of saying the games will be clean, or even that most cheaters will be caught.

Just a few years ago, testing failed to catch several U.S. track stars, including Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery.

"The cream of the crop of the best track team in the world were dirty, and between them they passed hundreds of drug tests," says Charles Yesalis of Penn State University, who has spent decades studying doping in sport.

Jones and Montgomery were caught several years later, when their names turned up during a criminal investigation into the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative. The lab, known as BALCO, supplied designer steroids to elite athletes.

The Pitfalls In Testing

You can test for designer drugs, but only if you know what you're looking for, says Jon Danaceau, an associate toxicologist at the University of Utah's Center for Human Toxicology.

"If somebody comes up with a completely novel drug that we don't know to look for it, yeah, it's possible that we can miss it," Danaceau says.

Another problem is that dopers are using synthetic versions of stuff the body already makes — like human growth hormone and erythropoietin (EPO), which boosts red blood cells. Even sophisticated tests can't always tell the difference.

And there are so many new drugs that it's hard for testers to keep up. Yesalis say these drugs are intended for people with potentially deadly diseases such as cancer or muscular dystrophy.

"But there are these unethical medical scientists that are sitting up in the trees like vultures waiting to pounce on them for their use in athletics," Yesalis says. "And some of these drugs work well."

The Future Of Doping

Even knowing what drugs to test for might not be enough. Future dopers are likely to try gene doping, which will be almost impossible to detect.

Lee Sweeney from the University of Pennsylvania is working with a gene that can be injected into a muscle to make the muscle larger. It works on rodents and dogs — and Sweeney has gotten lots of queries from athletes.

He says a typical pitch goes like this: "I've read about your work. I understand it's not yet in people. But I really would like to try it and maybe that would help further your work."

Sweeney says he turns these people away. He says he doubts that athletes know enough to try gene doping on their own, but he gets why would-be dopers are so intrigued by his approach.

"It affects only the muscles that you inject," Sweeney says. "And so there's nothing in the blood to detect in those cases. And so if we were able to perfect that sort of delivery in humans, then there would be nothing in the blood or urine for WADA to test for." Instead, scientists would actually have to remove part of the muscle and test that.

Although doping experts say better tests are catching people who wouldn't have been caught just a few years ago, that's not going to get rid of the cheaters.

"The Olympics and the power and the money behind it is just too big," says Don Catlin, who runs a company called Anti-Doping Research.

He says elite athletes simply have more money than WADA or its U.S. counterpart, the United States Anti-Doping Agency. Catlin says WADA has a budget of about $24 million, while the U.S. agency's budget is around $2.5 million.

"When you're up against a problem of this nature and magnitude, those amounts of money just can't do it," he says.

Catlin says there will be clean athletes who win their events in Beijing. There's just no way to tell who they are.