Over 150 anti-doping scientists are in London for the Olympics, and they’re bringing some new technology with them. Even before the opening ceremony kicked off, at least nine athletes had already been banned from the Games for failing drug tests.
Organizers always proclaim their Olympics to be the most heavily tested ever, and in London there’s reason to believe that’s not just spin. A new test for synthetic growth hormone, popular among drug cheats over the last 15 years, will make its debut at these Olympics. The “HGH biomarker” test, as it’s known, can detect unnatural HGH in an athlete up to two to three weeks after it is injected, which is an improvement over previous HGH tests (SI.com's David Epstein has a terrific breakdown of the tests).
Another new tactic, known as the biological passport model, tracks athletes’ blood levels over many years in order to detect irregularities that would creep up if the athlete started using drugs. In effect, it looks for the performance boost in an athlete’s body, rather than for a specific drug. This is helpful because, in the past, cheaters could keep a step ahead of testers by using new or altered drugs that were undetectable by contemporary testing capabilities.
The biological passport model —-which in London will be used in cycling, modern pentathlon, rowing, swimming, track and field, and triathlon -- has delivered promising results. Performances in the most grueling mountain stages of the Tour de France, for example, have diminished measurably since 2008, when the biological passports became standardized, indicating a decrease in drug use in the sport, which had become tattered from doping scandals.
In the week leading up to the Olympics six track and field athletes were banned after their biological passports confirmed “sophisticated doping.” The first doping controversy of the Games involves 16-year-old female Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwe. A U.S. swimming official called Ye's times "unbelievable" and implied that doping was a factor, a fact the Chinese vigorously deny. An IOC spokesman, when asked about Ye, said: "We would only comment if we had any adverse finding. I am not commenting, so you can draw your own conclusions."
Finally, one other tactic that has become standard is to freeze urine and blood samples for eight years so that athletes can be tested retroactively. Three athletes were banned from the London Games prior to competition because of recent tests done on frozen samples provided at the track and field world championships last year.
Regardless of the efficacy of testing, I’ve always argued that doping in sports will be minimized only if fans, sponsors, and the athletes themselves are more outspoken about why doping is harmful. And I don’t mean harmful to the athletes’ health. Sure, doping involves experimenting with sketchy substances that have unknown long-term health consequences, and that’s risky. But what’s even more important, what we all have at stake collectively, is the integrity of sport at the most fundamental level. If we are to pretend that the Olympic Games are anything more than a commercialized, drug-fueled spectacle, we have to care enough to demand that athletes are clean. Otherwise, we’re only fooling ourselves.
Until our culture openly detests performance-enhancing drugs as much as we love to glorify world records and idolize the most dominant athletes, doping will continue to be pervasive in elite sport.
Ryan Quinn is the author of The Fall: A Novel. He was an NCAA Champion and All-American cross-country skier at the University of Utah. He now lives in Los Angeles.