The London Olympics don't start until Friday, but the Games have already been impacted by an age-old problem – doping.
So far, four athletes have tested positive in recent weeks for various banned substances, including Morocco's Alaoui Selsouli, a potential gold medalist in the women's 1,500 metres, and star cyclist Frank Schleck of Luxembourg, who has denied taking the banned drug.
Staying ahead of drug cheats is an ongoing struggle for the International Olympic Committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency, WADA. But organizers of the London Games feel they'll have an edge this time. That's because more testing will be done during these Olympics than ever before and all of the samples will be analyzed at a state-of-the-art laboratory donated by British drug giant GlaxoSmithKline, or GSK.
It's the first time a private company has been involved in drug testing at the Olympics, and GSK made the contribution// as part of a $31-million sponsourship agreement with the IOC. The company has also signed a deal with WADA to share information about drugs in development so the agency can come with doping tests before the products hit the market. Swiss drug maker Hoffmann LaRoche has signed a similar deal and WADA is hoping for accords with other drug makers.
During the London Olympics, the GSK lab will analyze 5,000 samples, or roughly 400 a day. The testing will be conducted by 150 scientists from around the world under the direction of King's College London's Drug Control Centre. A team from WADA will also be on hand to monitor the analysis. "The GSK lab gives us the very best possible chance of catching people who use doping," said Hugh Robertson, Britain's minister for sport and the Olympics.
While improved testing during the Olympics is welcome, it won't be nearly enough to stop the doping problem. "The question remains whether this helps to detect substances that are used way ahead of the Games," said doping specialist Mario Thevis of the German Sport University in Cologne. "Such as substances that increase muscle mass [and] endurance performance in particular, because those are usually not administered in competition but out of competition. And the effect of these drugs is still there even weeks after cessation. Even though we might have the best possible lab on site [at the Olympics], we might not pick up everyone who is potentially cheating."
In fact, the number of positive tests dropped from 26 at the 2004 Games in Athens to 14 in Beijing in 2008. That could be sign of less doping or, more likely, an indication that athletes got better at knowing when to stop taking illicit substances to avoid detection.
It's no surprise that amateur chemists are constantly coming up with ways of trying to beat the system. And one of the most difficult for doping control officials is so called "micro dosing." That's where athletes take a small amount of a banned substance such as the hormone erythropoietin, or EPO, which boosts red blood cell production. The doses are large enough to provide at least some benefit, but small enough that detection is almost impossible after days or even hours.
Anti-doping officials are also still trying to come up with a decent test for human growth hormone, or HGH, which boosts muscle mass and increases recovery time. And they are grappling with such issues as how to regulate genetic engineering and gene therapy, which could involve using genes to slow aging or increase red blood cell production.
The level of sophistication among drug cheats has even surprised officials at Glaxo, one of the world's largest drug companies. "We've really had our eyes opened around how savvy dopers are," said Pauline Williams, a Glaxo vice-president who is heading up the company's partnership with WADA. Dr. Williams noted that the company is working on a new drug to treat anemia that is associated with kidney disease. The drug mimics the body's response to low oxygen levels and orders it to produce more red blood cells, something Glaxo now knows could be beneficial to athletes.
There are more practical problems for anti-doping officials beyond chemistry. The agency certifies labs around the world that conduct doping tests, but some labs won't do certain tests because they cost too much. And there are questions about just how effective the testing has been. In 2010, WADA-approved labs did 260,000 tests and got just 36 positive results for EPO and only three for HGH. Anti-doping officials believe that clearly indicates many cheaters are not being caught.
Nontheless, Prof. Thevis warns athletes about getting complacent. He said that despite the many challenges, the testing process is improving and labs are keeping samples for up to eight years, meaning they can be retested as technology improves. Five samples from the Athens Games in 2004 recently tested positive for banned substances.
"The doping control program is getting better and better in terms of analytical chemistry, in terms of intelligent testing," he said. "I would say that the options to undermine the system are getting smaller and smaller. There are not very many loopholes that cheating athletes might use."