Olympic Games: Reliability of Atlanta drug testing questioned

The reliability of drug testing during the Atlanta Olympics is in doubt, according to an official who oversaw the dope control programme last time the Games were staged in the United States, while the effectiveness of new machinery to catch cheats has also been called into question.

The Olympic drug centre at Morehouse College received its formal accreditation from the International Olympic Committee only last weekend, a year later than required in the contract drafted between the IOC and the Atlanta organisers. The delays in installing the much-heralded high resolution mass spectrometer machines (HRMS) has meant that when the Games begin, the laboratory will be conducting its first "live" sporting drug tests. It is a situation which not only flouts the IOC's own rules, but which could also see every one of the 1,800 tests expected during the 16 days of competition rendered invalid.

Dr Craig Kammerer, who oversaw testing at the 1984 Olympics, fears that the whole testing programme this year could be at risk. "It's impossible to get everything ready in time," he said. The delays have been caused through wrangles between SmithKline Beecham, the pharmaceutical giant who have paid for the three machines, which cost around pounds 500,000 each, and the authorities at the local medical school.

During the Olympics, officials plan to test every individual medal-winner, plus others at random. In little more than two weeks, they will be expected to process more tests than they usually handle in a year of the Morehouse Lab's normal business.

There are doubts whether the HRMS are as effective in catching cheats as has been claimed. Dr John Cantwell, chief medical officer for the organisers, issued a letter in which he claimed: "HRMS allows a widening of the window in drug detection. With HRMS, use of a banned substance might be detected eight weeks or more from entrance into the athlete's system."

But according to work conducted in Cologne, the effectiveness of HRMS is more limited. The study suggests that HRMS can extend the period of detection for only four specific steroids by just one week. Most importantly, HRMS does nothing to improve detection of administered testosterone, human growth hormone or EPO, the three most common methods used among top athletes today.

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