Tough battle to beat the cheats

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The Independent Online
It is difficult to believe that one of sport's toughest battles is being fought in three small rooms that look like a cross between a school science lab and a local freezer store, in a university building in a leafy London street.

Thirty upright freezers line the walls. Their trays are not packed with frozen pizza and ice cream, but urine samples.

Careers can be finished and reputations smashed in Britain's drug control centre, one of only 24 across the world accredited by the International Olympic Committee.

There nearly all of the British team going to Atlanta next week have been tested, although none of the 18 white-coated staff would know the identity of the owners of any of the samples. To them the 4,000 tests that the centre, part of King's College, London, carries out each year are anonymous, although they do not treat them any less seriously for that.

Incoming samples - each competitor tested provides two, identified as A and B - are carefully checked and labelled, and methodically stored. Any irregularities in the procedures will be seized on by any competitor who is discredited by the test and then aims to restore their reputation on appeal or in the courts.

After preparation, a raindrop-sized part of the A sample is minutely analysed in a pounds 50,000 grey metal box about as large as an office photocopier, better known to scientists as a mass spectrometer. The method is capable of detecting steroids, stimulants and a host of hormones, but the laboratory is constantly trying to improve its techniques.

Only between one and two per cent of tests prove positive, a figure which is mirrored by the world's other testing sites, but the centre's director, Dr David Cowan, admits athletes can slip through the net, and may do so at the Olympics.

"Obviously I hope there are no problems in Atlanta. If the athletes have been properly informed about the sensitivity of the testing and deterred from taking drugs, that will be a success story," Dr Cowan said.

"But they might be taking other substances. That's why it is so important work goes ahead to detect new substances and why research is so important. We can never say we've solved it and become complacent."

In Atlanta, the IOC will be using even more advanced machines to detect cheats than at King's, where the testing was conducted for Euro 96 and the last rugby union World Cup. But even then some drug-takers may go unnoticed.

"It is no secret that there are these banned substances which we cannot detect, things like growth hormone," Dr Cowan said. "At least we can detect them but we cannot prove they have been administered. There could be athletes out there who are taking those."

Despite that warning, Dr Cowan, one of the centre's founders 18 years ago, is essentially optimistic.

"If you ask me if I, with all my expertise and experience in the field, could beat the test consistently and take drugs, I am not sure. They are so sophisticated I would be gambling."

Charles Arthur, page 17