On July 27, the International Olympic Committee began its biggest effort to catch athletes who are using performance-enhancing substances.
Before the games were started Jacques Rogge, president of the IOC, had predicted that 30-40 athletes would test positive.
More than a dozen athletes tested positive in Athens in 2004. The IOC has conducted 2,203 tests for doping, 1,720 urine tests and 483 blood tests and will continue testing until Aug. 24, catching up with athletes after they return home, if necessary. By that time, the committee expects to have conducted 4,500 drug tests. There were 3,600 tests in Athens.
High-profile athletes like Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt have been extensively tested, with both blood and urine tests every time. The committee is testing the top five finishers in each event as well as two athletes chosen at random.
Results of failed tests are available within 48 hours except for tests for EPO, which boosts red blood cell production. Those tests take 72 hours.
“If the cat and mouse are quiet, is the mouse in hiding or is the cat asleep?” asked Donald Berry, chairman of the department of biostatistics at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Berry recently published an article in the journal Nature on drug testing in sports and testified for the defense team of Mary Decker Slaney, a 1996 Olympic runner who was accused of doping. Testing labs, Berry said, have been criticized and “may well be increasingly cowed about calling positive. … Inevitably, labs are behind the curve.”
And that is what gives many doping experts pause. Some, like Charles E. Yesalis, a professor of sports science at Penn State University, said it is folly to think athletes are not cheating. “Some of these drugs work unbelievably well, to the point where you can’t compete against someone if you don’t take them, no matter how talented you are,” Yesalis said.
Joris Delanghe, a doping expert at the University of Ghent in Belgium, said one of the latest ploys is to slip a grain of a powdered laundry detergent that contains brightening agents – enzymes that break down proteins – into a urine sample. The detergent will destroy erythropoietin, or EPO, and human growth hormone in the urine.
The drug testing story, Yesalis said: “is like the story of the Dutch boy who puts his finger in a hole in the dike, but then another hole pops up. That’s what’s been going on for 40 years.”