New tests and spot checks in Athens are hoped to deliver cleaner Games
A month ago the head of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), Dick Pound, warned in an interview in the Belgian press that at the Athens Olympics, WADA would be «hot on the heels of the doping mafia.» He certainly meant what he said. Responsibility for anti-doping control within the Olympic Village and during the Games lies directly with the International Olympic Committee (with the help of its medical department), and their weaponry has been greatly boosted. The IOC, WADA and the Athens 2004 Organizing Committee have set up a joint action group, although policy decisions rest with the IOC’s Executive Committee. The doping control laboratory is at the main Olympic complex, and is considered to be very well equipped, with a budget of 2.5 million euros and 125 staff members. The new weapons are the two new tests being used for the first time in Athens. First there is the one for human growth hormone (HGH), a substance banned by the IOC 15 years ago. Until now it could not be traced, since it is naturally produced by the human body. In the test, developed by a research group at the University of Southampton, samples of blood and urine are taken. The first test is performed at the Olympic Stadium, to find out if the athlete has used the hormone within the last 36 hours. The samples are then sent to Britain, where a second check pinpoints whether it has been ingested within the past 84 days. The second test traces the banned anabolic steroid tetrahydrogestrinone (THG), established following information supplied anonymously to the American Anti-Doping Service by a US track-and-field official. It led to the doping scandal involving the BALCO nutritional-supplements company owned by Victor Conte, which allegedly produced tetrahydrogestrinone. BALCO, according to allegations in the British and US press, had links with coach Christos Tzekos, the trainer at the center of the latest doping allegations in Greece. Finally, the test for the use of erythropoietin (EPO), which raises red blood cell levels, is to be widely used in Athens. It was used on a small scale in Sydney. This test has come under some criticism – US epidemiologist Charles Yesalis claims it cannot catch an athlete who has used EPO a week before the test. In all tests, two samples are taken from the athlete in case a second check is needed. The second powerful weapon the IOC and WADA have at their disposal is the element of surprise, both during the Games and beforehand. It was within the framework of these spot checks that dozens of athletes were tested last Thursday. The most crucial issue in anti-doping is the time the samples are taken. Just a few hours, even one or two hours, are enough for many suspect substances to disappear from athletes’ blood or urine. That is why tests done on medalists after the Games are over are almost wholly ineffective and hardly anyone is caught out, although it is common knowledge that it is almost impossible to win medals in a number of events without a chemical boost. On the other hand, there is the well-known case of Canadian athlete Ben Johnson, who was caught because he had taken a banned substance 26 days before the race, instead of 28 days. That is why the Anti-Doping Code, in force for the first time this year, is extremely tough on those who refuse to give a blood or urine sample, an action that is tantamount to an admission of guilt. The code specifically states that if an athlete cannot be found, the inspector can carry out an investigation in order to decide whether he or she was deliberately avoiding the test. The athlete has the right to ask for a postponement if there is «good cause.» Athletes must be accompanied by a WADA official from the moment they are instructed in person to present themselves for a test, and to appear within 60 minutes of the warning, if it is for a spot check, or within 24 hours, if it is for a scheduled test. Many claim that in the fight between the doping business and anti-doping lobby, it is the new anabolic steroids that are winning the battle. Recently, Pound said it was not certain the new test would be able to trace all illegal substances. Terry Madden, head of the US Anti-Doping Agency, recently warned that new non-traceable synthetic substances would be used in Athens. That is why there are many who think that the IOC’s campaign against anabolic steroids will fail to keep the Games completely clean.