Always out in front? Keeping up with drug cheats

After a string of doping scandals, sport's credibility is at an all-time low. As the Olympics near, how will science stay one step ahead of the drug cheats?
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They may not have given it away with their less-than-commanding performance in Saturday's opening game, but three of England's Rugby World Cup squad have been using a performance enhancer. It's not a banned substance, but a vest coated in a liquid wash that uses so-called ionic energy to encourage the flow of oxygen-enriched blood to the muscles.

The competition's organisers were so concerned by the implications of the technology that they consulted the World Anti-Doping Agency, who gave the vests the all-clear. Still, Phil Vickery and his team-mates are now among the ranks of sportsmen inching towards that blurred line between those hailed as champions and those condemned as cheats.

Trust in track and field is at an all-time low – witness the case of Christine Ohuruogu, Great Britain's 400 metres gold medallist at the World Athletics Championships last month. A dark cloud hangs over her victory – three missed drugs tests in 2005 and 2006 saw her banned from the sport for a year.

Barry Bonds, now baseball's all-time leading scorer of home runs, is the subject of countless accusations of drug use following a brush with the Balco scandal – despite never having failed a test. And cycling has been thrown into chaos by the string of scandals at this year's Tour de France, just a year after 2006 Tour winner Floyd Landis tested positive for high levels of testosterone.

But behind the headlines, how do the drugs cheats stay one step ahead of the sporting establishment? Are there sophisticated rogue manufacturers out there plying them with designer drugs, or is it a makeshift black market run by low-rent steroid pedlars? How are new substances developed, and how do the good guys find them?

Dr Don Catlin knows where the bodies are buried. As director of the Olympic Analytical Laboratory at UCLA from 1982 until earlier this year, he was instrumental in exposing the Balco affair in 2003. Balco (Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative), ostensibly a legitimate business offering food supplements, and urine and blood analysis, turned out to have a sideline in supplying athletes with growth hormones and the now-notorious anabolic steroid tetrahydrogestrinone (THG). A designer drug, THG was developed specifically to be undetectable in the systems of those competitors desperate or corruptible enough to take it.

Balco's chemist Patrick Arnold had also created two further drugs, norbolethone and desoxymethyltestosterone (DMT). But thanks to Catlin's and his team's methods, 20 athletes proved positive for THG; all three drugs are now testable and on the official list of banned substances; and Balco vice-president Victor Conte was jailed. Among those accused of doping were the British sprinter Dwain Chambers, who was banned for two years after testing positive for THG, the US runner Marion Jones, and Barry Bonds. Neither Bonds nor Jones ever failed a test, but each remains tainted by association with Conte's lab.

"It'd be dumb not to think there's another Balco out there," says Catlin. "It's a big world and people are motivated by the dollar." But even those organisations large enough to manufacture and market a substance designed for unscrupulous sportspersons – like Balco did with THG – are hard to find.

Many drugs developed for human clinical use are also useful for doping. One such is erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone used to treat anaemia in cancer patients by controlling red blood-cell production. Such drugs can also help athletes boost their red blood-cell count, or haematocrit. The sporting authorities responded to the trend for banned anti-anaemia drugs by imposing a 50 per cent limit on haematocrit levels in athletes but, says Catlin, "there are plenty of sportspeople whose haematocrit began at around 40 or 42 per cent, who now are up to around 49.5 per cent. So we know they must be on these anti-anaemia drugs." Now that EPO is testable, they have moved on to new substances, and found more sophisticated ways to regulate their doping.

"When we wrote our paper about THG, everybody in the testing business had to buy an LC-MS mass spectrometer, which is what we used to detect THG. Before that everybody used GC-MS spectrometers. So there was a big escalation when we all had to change our equipment. Another big step is coming now because the dopers are starting to use growth hormones and proteins, which involve much larger molecules than steroids. Because of that we have to use a different kind of testing, different instruments."

In one sense, the system is inherently flawed. "Once you break its code, the drug in question goes away because the bad guys know you've beaten it. You've got its co-ordinates, its retention time, its mass spectrum, and it would be silly for them to go back to it," Catlin explains. " But they just move on – the clandestine people don't have to deal with the FDA [Food and Drug Administration], they don't have to follow any rules. They can take a molecule and tweak it, and just put it straight out on the market. They don't much care about its safety, all they care about is its efficacy for enhancing performance."

And the future of doping is even darker: genetically modified sportspersons. Scientists are working overtime to devise tests that might expose genetic manipulation in athletes when it does arrive. "It'll only come to light when there's an accident. If somebody tries to manipulate their genes and they turn on a gene that makes them swifter and faster, but they can't turn off the gene, then they'll develop into a monster, and they might die. Only then will it become apparent what's going on."

There are those who believe that, with the advent of gene doping, the authorities should finally allow athletes to embrace genetic modification without fear of punishment, not least because GM athletes most likely walk among us already. One of the dissidents is Dr Andy Miah, a bioethicist at Scotland's University of Paisley, who argues that genetic modification is safer than the use of synthetic drugs, and indeed is in line with the values of élite sport, offering hope of ever more spectacular records in speed, strength and stamina.

Catlin, unsurprisingly, disagrees. "If we stopped all testing, on the basis that it's a waste of time and they get around us anyway, then everybody would have to take drugs to compete. We'd have a new set of records, but we'd also see more and more athletes having medical complications as the drugs got harder and harder. There are some pretty forceful people in the ethics field arguing for legalisation of doping. They see the escalation and ask, just as I do, whether there's a better way. But unless you've been in the trenches and run a lab like I have, you haven't seen how nitty-gritty it can get. It can get as gross as you want. It's not a nice, sweet, clean business. It's dirty – morally and physically."

Nowadays Catlin is trying to devise a new way to combat the problem of drugs in sport. "I don't think the 'chase 'em down, collect their urine and test it' approach is going to work for ever," he says. "I don't think we've done anything that really ameliorates the problem; we've just pushed it into different areas."

Hence the programme he is establishing with his new venture, the non-profit laboratory Anti-Doping Research Institute. Catlin hopes to persuade athletes to volunteer for intensive monitoring and self-testing, working towards a change in the culture surrounding doping. "I think you need to reward athletes rather than punish them. Once we have the funding, there's the question of where to start. Do we start with a simple sport or with some of those that are pretty riddled with drugs? On one hand those riddled sports are the ones that need it most, but they're also the toughest nuts to crack."

Catlin is unconvinced by arguments that seek to absolve the dopers. " Drugs are cheating – there's no point in calling it anything else. Sometimes people make a mistake, get something over the counter without reading the label and take a banned substance without meaning to. They learn the hard way. But sportspeople have become extremely careful about the substances they use, so they should know whether what they're taking is banned or not. The line can be blurred, but I think those of us involved in testing are pretty good at sorting it out."

Win at all costs: Sport's drug scandals

* 1904 Thomas J Hicks takes a mixture of strychnine and brandy to push on to the end of the marathon at the 1904 Olympic Games. He wins the race, then promptly collapses.

* 1954 The World Weightlifting Championships are marred by unconfirmed allegations of Soviet lifters injecting testosterone.

* 1983 Guy Greavette and Michel Viau test positive for steroids at the Pan American Games.

* 1988 Ben Johnson is banned for two years and stripped of his gold medal from the Seoul Olympics, where he won the 100 metres. Five years later, after another failed test, he is banned for life.

* 1988 At the Olympics, British

athlete Linford Christie is found to have pseudoephedrine in his system, but is cleared, claiming it derived from ginseng. In 1999, he tests positive for nandrolone and is banned for two years.

* 1998 Ireland's Michelle Smith is banned from swimming for four years. Testers discover a level of alcohol so high it could have killed a man. Whisky had been added to her sample to mask drugs.

* 2006 Justin Gatlin, US Olympic 100m champion and joint world record holder, tests positive for "testosterone or its precursor". He is still appealing his eight-year ban from athletics.

* 2007 Alexandre Vinokourov, Cristian Moreni and Michael Rasmussen are withdrawn from the Tour de France after testing positive for performance drugs, while Andrej Kashechkin and Iban Mayo were also found to have been doping.