The International Olympic Committee is sending a message to athletes who passed their drug tests at the games in Beijing: Not so fast.
On Thursday, the IOC announced that it will do more studies on frozen blood samples from the summer games. It is targeting a new banned substance discovered in some athletes at this year's Tour de France bicycle race.
The Beijing games were heralded as one of the cleanest Olympics ever. IOC President Jacques Rogge had predicted before the games that up to 40 athletes would be caught doping in China. It turned out that only six competitors were booted for using banned substances.
But amid the back-slapping over a job well-done, many in the anti-doping world suspected that six out of nearly 11,000 athletes wasn't quite accurate. Now the IOC is acting on that suspicion.
The IOC is careful not to use the word "retesting," because that infers sloppy work in Beijing. But the committee says it will further analyze some of the 969 blood samples taken from athletes. The reason is that since the games ended, a blood test for a new form of the banned oxygen-boosting substance erythropoietin, or EPO, has been validated.
The IOC wants to find out whether any athletes in Beijing were using this new drug, called CERA. The committee decided to act after Tour de France officials announced this week that further analysis of blood tests from this year's race detected CERA in two cyclists.
CERA is a new generation of EPO, a naturally occurring hormone that increases the amount of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. It can help endurance athletes who want to recover quicker from workouts.
Anti-doping expert Dr. Gary Wadler says CERA's appeal is that "it's just longer lasting."
"I mean, what they basically do is take the EPO molecule and they attach something that's called PEG, which stands for polyethylene glycol, which allows the drug to circulate longer, [so] they need reduced frequency of injections," he says.
But Wadler says it's a double-edged sword for doping athletes.
"Like the longer-acting steroids, once they're there, they're there and you cannot get rid of them except by time," he says.
This is why Wadler thinks CERA may fall out of favor with athletes trying to get a boost without detection. A member of the World Anti-Doping Agency, Wadler says the agency worked with the drug company that developed CERA and came up with a blood test for the substance.
International sports officials heralded that kind of collaboration as well as the IOC's policy of retroactive drug screening.
Andy Parkinson of the group Drug-Free Sport in Britain, is quoted as saying the IOC's move concerning the Beijing samples sends a great message: "Long gone are the days when an athlete gets a negative test after a competition and disappears with the medal forever. Athletes who cheat are not safe, even eight years after competition."
Of course, the fight continues as some athletes and chemists keep cooking up drugs for which there is no test. But today at least, the anti-dopers say they are gaining ground.