Can doping athletes be stopped? With the Athens Olympics about to open, scientists are increasingly concerned that sophisticated techniques for evading drug tests will make it difficult for testers to catch athletes using steroids and other drugs, especially at future athletic competitions when genetic-based enhancements are expected to be prevalent.
In the August/September issue of Update, the magazine of the New York Academy of Sciences, writer Diane Kightlinger documents how advances in drug production and genetic engineering are benefiting athletes interested in evading tests – and the ways in which scientists are figuring out ways to create ever-better detection techniques.
Today, the pharmacopoeia of substances banned at the Olympic Games includes not only stimulants, but narcotics, anabolic steroids, beta-2 agonists, and peptide hormones such as EPO (erythropoietin) and hGH (human growth hormone). Last year, the drug company Balco was charged with distributing designer drugs such as the steroid THG (tetrahydrogestrinone).
In recent years, researchers focused on catching dopers have won important battles by developing tests for THG and EPO and using them to catch abusers. In addition, the creation of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in November 1999 may soon result in near-universal standards for doping control across sports federations and countries.
However, current methods of Olympic testing still cannot catch athletes who use steroids to bulk up during training but stop months before the Games, or those who use EPO more than a few days before competition.