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Drug testing aims to level Olympics playing field

Benjamin Mack
August 6, 2012

Ever since organized competition began, athletes have sought an edge over opponents. And every time an athlete excels dramatically, one question makes the rounds: Could it have been doping?

Urine samples are seen in a refrigerator at the UK's only laboratory to carry out doping tests on sports competitors, in central London's King's College, Thursday July 10, 2008. The Drug Control Centre analyzes over 7,500 samples each year from sportsmen and women for prohibited substances. This year that figures includes around 1,500 tests being conducted on every British athlete heading to Beijing for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. It is one of only 33 laboratories accredited by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to conduct drug testing in sport.
Image: AP

While much discussion is devoted to the athletes involved in doping cases, less is focused on how testing exactly works.

One of the most prevalent forms of doping is blood doping. Blood doping involves boosting the number of red blood cells in the bloodstream in order to enhance performance and, because these blood cells carry oxygen from the lungs to muscles, a higher concentration can improve aerobic capacity. This method is particularly prevalent in endurance events such as cycling. Two former Tour de France winners have had their titles taken away due to blood doping, while Lance Armstrong - who holds the record with seven Tour de France victories - is currently under investigation.

Although the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is the worldwide governing body for athlete drug testing, testing in individual countries is typically overseen by different agencies.

In Germany, testing is overseen by the National Anti Doping Agency (NADA). According to NADA spokesperson Eva Bunthoff, the NADA is responsible for organizing and realizing doping tests, deciding which athletes are tested, how they are tested (blood tests, urine samples, or a combination), and what they tested for.

For the testing itself, said Bunthoff, an external company called Professional Worldwide Controls (PWC) is contracted. Samples are tested at laboratories in Cologne and Dresden.

If an athlete is found to have failed a test, they can have another sample, called a "B" sample, tested. If that sample also fails, they may face penalties which can include having awards stripped and a lifetime ban from organized participation in their respective sport.

According to Bunthoff, all German athletes currently competing in London were tested by the NADA prior to leaving. During the Games, she said, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is responsible for testing.

Half of all competitors on London will be tested for drugs, according to the IOC, with 150 scientists set to take 6,000 samples. In addition, every competitor who wins a medal will be tested. Overall, the IOC will test up to 400 samples every day for more than 240 prohibited substances.

Improved methods

As testing methods have become more advanced, so have the drugs some athletes use and the lengths they go to conceal them.

One of the stranger methods used to beat tests is the whizzinator. Particularly popular among male athletes, it is essentially dried urine stored in a prosthetic penis that can be heated into a liquid similar to the real thing. In May 2005, American football player Onterrio Smith was busted at a Minnesota airport for having the product. He was suspended from his team as a result.

There is also a female version of the whizzinator, called "Number One."

Still, some claim, getting away with doping is harder than ever.

Gymnast Luzia Galiulina performs at a competition in March.
Uzbek gymnast Luzia Galiulina tested positive for furosemide in LondonImage: picture alliance/dpa

"Doping athletes should know that their chances of avoiding detection are the smallest they have ever been," said WADA President John Fahey three days before the Games began.

The NADA's Bunthoff stressed the importance of testing - and the dangerous precedent doping can set.

"Sport teaches basic values ​of society and is of fundamental importance," said Bunthoff. "In hardly any other area of ​​society values ​​such as tolerance, the principle of equal opportunities, the merit principle and the principle of fairness are exemplified and practiced as consequently as in sports. Doping endangers these positive values. Doping threatens the entire sport."

So far in London, four athletes have been found to have used prohibited substances. None of them were from Germany.

"We have shown that we take swift action, that cheats are caught and ejected from these games," IOC spokesman Mark Adams told The Associated Press. "I would say at this stage, it's a pretty low number."

Author: Benjamin Mack
Editor: Rina Goldenberg