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Drug-testing at the Olympic Games Poses a Huge Challenge For Scientists

Although the vast majority of Olympic athletes rely on their strength and skill alone, the possible financial rewards of victory can be so great that a few will almost certainly resort to the use of performance-enhancing substances in an attempt to gain the winning edge over their competitors.

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By Dr. Todd Arsenault

In a little over a week the eyes of the entire world will be on the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, where the most elite athletes on the planet will be competing for Olympic glory.

Although the vast majority of them rely on their strength and skill alone, the possible financial rewards of victory can be so great that a few will almost certainly resort to the use of performance-enhancing substances in an attempt to gain the winning edge over their competitors.

Stopping these practices (commonly called 'doping') is essential to ensure that all athletes have a level playing field. Eliminating doping among athletes is not simply a matter of fair play, though - it is a serious public health issue that touches amateur and Olympian alike. Some young athletes have died during competitions because of performance-enhancing substances; others have suffered life-long debilitation.

Performance-enhancing drug testing of elite athletes first began in the 1960s with the international federations for soccer (FIFA) and cycling (UCI), and was used for the first time at the Olympics in the 1968 Games in Mexico City.

Various nations and international sports federations had a mish-mash of drug testing requirements until the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was established in 1999 as the standard setting organization for all international sports, including the Olympic Games.

WADA publishes a list of prohibited substances and methods as part of its World Anti-Doping Code. The list is astounding, and only grows larger each year as cheats find new ways to try to circumvent the surveillance methods used.

Among the current prohibited substances are anabolic steroids (which build muscle mass and were infamously used by Ben Johnson and more recently by some prominent Major League Baseball players); hormones, such as growth factors; and drugs that block, modulate or enhance natural hormones.

Other drugs include diuretics (which can be used in an attempt to mask residues of other drugs that might otherwise be detected in a urine test), stimulants, narcotics, cannabinoids (marijuana-related chemicals), glucocorticosteroids (which are anti-inflammatory and affect metabolism) and beta-blockers (which lower heart rate). There are literally hundreds of individual drugs on the prohibited list.

Besides these chemical substances, the code also prohibits biological materials and methods such as infusion of blood products for enhanced oxygen uptake, chemical or physical methods designed to alter the integrity of samples, and even gene doping to alter gene expression in the athlete's body.

With such a long list of specific chemical compounds and many biological methods that don't necessarily have a specific chemical marker to indicate that they have been used, the anti-doping laboratory has a huge challenge in testing for all of the possible ways to cheat.

Furthermore, the results must be turned around very quickly (usually the next day), there are thousands of urine and blood samples to test, and the results must be reliable enough to stand up in court if necessary.

The laboratory undertaking the testing must also meet extensive requirements to be accredited by WADA, including meeting international standards for day-to-day quality control (testing for false positive and false negative results, daily checks on accuracy, sensitivity, reproducibility, etc.).

The accreditation standard also specifies requirements for ongoing quality assurance, such as validation of test methods, maintenance of equipment, training of scientific and technical staff, sample custody procedures, documentation and control of records, etc.

Accredited laboratories also have to successfully test "blind" negative and positive samples that are provided to them in the guise of real samples, to make sure that they are able to obtain the correct results if a prohibited substance or a marker for a prohibited method is ever present.

Testing so many samples under such scrutiny and in a pressure cooker environment is a huge challenge for the scientists in the doping control laboratory, but their efforts pay off in discouraging the cheats and keeping sport clean.

As a result of the anti-doping laboratory's "Olympian" efforts, we can be assured that when our favourite athletes raise their arms in victory, they have kept WADA's mission to "play true."

Dr. Todd Arsenault is a volunteer member of the executive committee of Science East, whose mission is "To inspire and inform through hands-on science experiences," see His column appears every fourth Wednesday.

Source: The Daily Gleaner