Prospering no more: why the testers will catch the cheats at Athens Games

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The Independent Online

Dave Moorcroft, the UK Athletics chief executive, raised eyebrows in sporting circles this week by venturing to suggest that recent advances by the drug testers mean the Olympic Games which get under way in less than a fortnight's time will do so with significantly fewer doping abusers taking part than in recent times. "I think there will be less cheats in Athens than ever," Moorcroft said.

Dave Moorcroft, the UK Athletics chief executive, raised eyebrows in sporting circles this week by venturing to suggest that recent advances by the drug testers mean the Olympic Games which get under way in less than a fortnight's time will do so with significantly fewer doping abusers taking part than in recent times. "I think there will be less cheats in Athens than ever," Moorcroft said.

In that unfashionable belief he is not alone. According to Professor Geoffrey Goldspink, who works at the cutting edge of the battle against doping abuse, assisted by funding from the World Anti-Doping Agency, the advantage which has for so long been with those trying to beat the drug testers has tilted back.

He knows as well as anyone the effort that has been required from himself and his fellow researchers around the world to reach this point. He knows too the efforts that will need to be made if the cheats are not to prosper again. But when the athletes of the world congregate in Greece next month, Goldspink, of the Royal Free and University College Medical School in London, believes those who have prepared with methods beyond the rules will have reason to be fearful.

Since the beginning of the year it has been known that scientists had finally devised a test for a substance which has been used by cheats for more than 20 years - human growth hormone (HGH), which promotes muscle growth and endurance.

The effect could be as dramatic as the introduction in 2000 of a test for the illegal blood-booster erythropoietin (EPO), which caused a number of champions at the Salt Lake Winter Games of 2002 to be stripped of their medals.

The test, which has been developed by scientists in Germany, can differentiate between synthetic HGH that has been injected into athletes, and that which is naturally-produced.

The latest method circumvents the problems which delayed previous efforts, when there was doubt over what would constitute acceptable levels of HGH in a cross-section of competitors that ranged from 13-year-old female gymnasts to 40-year-old male rifle shooters. "It was very difficult to devise a test which applied fairly to all of them," Goldspink said. "But now we have HGH taped."

It is indicative of the mindset now required to counter the multi-million dollar advances into doping abuse, however, that the Germans' breakthrough will only be relied upon for a limited amount of time. "It is accepted that the test will work for these Olympics, and then it will be necessary to create a new one," Goldspink said. "But I think this time we are ahead."

Goldspink's optimism extends to his own area of expertise, namely gene therapy, which looks likely to take cheats and testers into a new and previously unimagined realm of conflict.

The reality is that this new scientific technique can transform both mice and men. Laboratories in the United States have already produced rodents of previously unimaginable size and power by introducing into their bodies modified genes which trigger the natural production of human growth hormone.

Goldspink believes it is only a matter of time before such technological innovation is employed to further the ambitions of Olympic athletes - if indeed it isn't already.

But here's the bad news for prospective cheats. The authorities are ready for them. After extended work with equipment so sensitive that it can amplify a specific piece of DNA a million times within 20 minutes, Goldspink and his partner Dr Steve Harridge have devised a test which will detect any kind of tampering with genetic material.

Whether the gene has been altered to stimulate human growth hormone, or Insulin-like Growth Factor 1, which has a similar effect, or EPO, or even if it has been fashioned to inhibit myostatin, the substance which normally limits muscle growth - Goldspink's test will show it up.

The new test is not cheap to operate, and will be used as a confirmatory mechanism after the first wave of screening has been effected by more traditional testing methods involving samples of urine and blood.

Some experts in gene technology, such as the University of Pennsylvania's Lee Sweeney, who has created a number of what are now known as the Schwarzenegger Mice, have cast doubt on the possibility of a test becoming effective, given that it will raise religious and ethical objections against athletes having to provide muscle samples for biopsy.

But Goldspink's method requires merely a drop of blood from athletes, who are already obliged to provide both blood and urine samples at the Games by the International Olympic Committee.

As with the German test for injected HGH, Goldspink's test stands ready for use immediately. How soon it would be required is open to question.

Successful application of gene therapy would take a dedicated scientific team working in a laboratory, something more likely to occur on a national level. But scientists believe some manipulation could be attempted by those with a lower level of expertise.

"It is very difficult to say whether we can expect positives at the Athens Games," said Goldspink, whose main work is designed to help those with muscle-wasting illnesses such as Motor Neurone Disease. "But we will be ready. I think by the next Games in Beijing we can be certain there will be a problem." He added that WADA intends for samples of blood and urine to be stored for a long period of time and submitted to new testing technologies when required. "We can work on blood samples and cells that have been deep frozen for 20 to 30 years if necessary," he said.

Tests for EPO and HGH were the first two priorities of WADA when it was set up in 1999, and millions of dollars have been spent on research.

The testers' highest profile advance in recent months, against the previously undetectable designer steroid tetrahydrogestrinone (THG), is reported to have stemmed from an unsolicited donation to the US Anti-Doping Agency last summer, when an anonymous source sent them a syringe containing traces of the substance.

Since then, athletes such as Britain's Dwain Chambers and United States runners such as Regina Jacobs, the world indoor 1500 metres record holder, and Kelli White, winner of the 100 and 200m at the last World Championships, have been banned for taking THG. And others, including the world 100m record holder Tim Montgomery, are facing a possible life ban.

Many observers, nevertheless, have maintained their criticism of the anti-doping authorities, pointing out that they would not have reached this encouraging point had they not been gifted with the evidence a year ago.

Goldspink, however, offers a viewpoint which argues against this analysis. "Larry Bowers, the head of USADA, is an old friend of mine, and we have sat together on many committees," he said. "He has a very good team, and they've obviously known about THG for some time. He has been talking about it for many years. I think it must have been about five years."

If Goldspink's memory serves him, the good guys have been on the case for longer than anyone suspected. Which only serves to strengthen the hope that, as the latest Olympics loom, those good guys may, at last, come first.

Drug abusers athletes who were caught in the past

Andreas Krieger

(formally known as Heidi Krieger)

Women's 1986 European shot put champion from East Germany who had a sex change in 1997 following male hormone usage. A victim of the East German government's systematic provision of male hormones to both male and female athletes.

Ben Johnson

The 100 metres champion at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games who was stripped of his gold medal after testing positive for the use of anabolic steroids. Johnson tried to comeback twice after his suspension but was found guilty of further doping violations. In 1993 he was banned for life from the sport.

Katrin Krabbe

The 100 metres and 200 metres champion at the 1991 Tokyo World Championships who received a one-year ban from the German Athletics Federation in 1992 after she admitted taking the banned substance clenbuterol. The IAAF banned her for a further two years in 1993.