• What Techniques Are Used to Catch Olympic Doping Cheats?


What Techniques Are Used to Catch Olympic Doping Cheats?

Mar 04 2016

This summer the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro will be hosting the Olympics. It’s only the second time in the history of the Olympics that a Latin American country has hosted the event. The first time was in 1968 in Mexico City – and was also the occasion of the first ever doping ban.

Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall, a pentathlete from Sweden, was banned for illegal traces of alcohol in his body. Apparently the Swede, uptight before his event, had decided to sink a few beers to calm his nerves. Unaware of the prohibition, the indulgence cost Liljenwall his place in the competition.

How times have changed

Of course these days, no athlete can claim ignorance to the rules — especially at an event as illustrious as the Olympics. The official website of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) contains a list of over 200 banned substances — the most visited page on the WADA website. The list is updated with new drugs and substances every January 1st – and it is the responsibility of every athlete to know what is on the list.

There are 34 WADA-certified laboratories around the world — used any time an athlete is tested for doping in a competitive environment. Rio will have its own laboratory and expects to be scanning a continuous stream of samples during the games.

A Constant Need to Evolve

With the evolving nature of drugs and performance enhancers, the methods needed to detect them have also been forced to evolve. The use of chromatography has long been a key method of analysing an athlete’s blood and urine samples to detect traces of any illegal substances. But the cheats have got wise to this — and modern drugs are designed to disappear quickly from the body.

In order to combat this, scientists have to look for ways to monitor not the actual substances themselves but traces that are left behind — metabolites — and any other biomarkers that could point to a performance enhancing substance. Again, chromatography is at the forefront in identifying metabolites and biomarkers in the human body as discussed in the article, A Multi-Platform Approach for Metabolomic Analysis of Human Liver Tissues.

“We’re moving towards an era that is more forensic-based rather than just pure toxicology-based,” explained Mark Fedoruk (director of science at the US Anti-Doping Agency) in a recent interview. “In urine and blood samples there are substances that our bodies produce naturally, but that can change with the use of doping products. Those changes last a longer period of time than the prohibited substances themselves when we look at them in the body.”

As such, a whole new raft of techniques will be in place at Rio 2016 for detecting substance abuse which did not even exist at the time of the last games in London.

We’ve come a long way since 1968 – but so has chromatography.

Image from Wikimedia commons

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