Hoping against doping at the 2018 Winter Olympics

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published February 7, 2018

Key Takeaways

As long as there are Olympics, there will be doping, said the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the association that organizes the Olympic Games.

“There will never be the moment where we will be able to say, now we have won the fight against doping,” said IOC president Thomas Bach in an interview with South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency. “This will always go on because, unfortunately, it seems that it’s some kind of human nature that whenever you have people in competition with each other, some are ready to take illegal advantage.”

Doping—the accepted term used by sports organizations worldwide—means using prohibited drugs or other substances to enhance athletic performance.

Now, on the eve of the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, the IOC continues to deal with the fallout from a massive doping scandal that occurred during and after the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. A 2016 report commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency revealed a “systematic and centralized cover-up” by the Russian government that involved more than 1,000 Russian athletes in 30 sports.

In December 2017, the IOC banned the Russian Olympic team from the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, although individual Russian athletes with a clean drug record have been invited to compete under the Olympic flag as “Olympic Athletes from Russia.”

Drugs for doping

Doping has existed as long as competitive sports. Ancient Greek Olympic athletes and Roman gladiators gulped concoctions and swallowed substances—such as mushrooms, plants, and mixtures of wine and herbs—to boost speed and endurance and suppress pain.

Fast forward to 2018: The World Anti-Doping Agency publishes an annual list—The Prohibited List—enumerating hundreds of prohibited drugs and methods that, if detected, will get an Olympic athlete punished (sanctioned) with anything from a reprimand to a lifetime ban. The list names:

  • More than 80 anabolic androgenic steroids
  • More than 50 peptide hormones, growth factors, related substances, and mimetics
  • About a dozen beta-2 agonists
  • More than 25 hormone and metabolic modulators
  • More than 25 diuretics and masking agents
  • About 70 stimulants
  • About a dozen narcotics
  • Most cannabinoids
  • About 11 glucocorticoids
  • About 20 beta-blockers

Numbers for each drug category are inexact because The Prohibited List also includes (in many categories) “other substances with a similar chemical structure or similar biological effect(s).”

In addition to drugs and substances, the list forbids methods such as physical or chemical tampering of an athlete’s samples (eg, switching or diluting samples), blood doping (manipulation of blood and blood components such as taking autologous blood or enhancing blood oxygen), and gene doping (injecting genes, genetic elements, and/or cells to enhance athletic performance).

Interestingly, of all the samples that tested positive for doping (known as an “adverse analytical finding”), half identified anabolic agents, according to 2015 World Anti-Doping Agency data of Olympic and non-Olympic sports.

Testing methods

Testing for prohibited substances is no easy feat for officials or athletes. Olympic athletes must be available for urine or blood testing anywhere and at any time. Certain top-level athletes must report their whereabouts every hour of every day to testing officials.

Anti-doping testing requires major investments and manpower. Labs around the world are accredited by the World Anti-Doping Agency. For the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, a new state-of-the-art, three-story laboratory facility was built—only to be suspended from operations 6 weeks before the start of the games. The World Anti-Doping Agency eventually lifted the suspension after a month, but later reported that the Rio facility was plagued by administrative and procedural problems. For one, not enough chaperones and blood collections officers were available, which forced sample testing to be abandoned in several cases.

Officials hope history won’t repeat itself for PyeongChang 2018. The IOC estimated a total of 20,000 anti-doping tests would be carried out before the start of the Winter Games.

Tests involve a variety of laboratory methods. Urine is tested by gas chromatograph/carbon/isotope ratio mass spectrometry, liquid chromatography high-resolution mass spectrometry, and human growth hormone biomarker analyses. Blood is analyzed for erythropoiesis-stimulating agents, hemoglobin-based oxygen carriers, human growth hormone biomarkers, and homologous blood transfusion.

Olympic competitors are also routinely checked for their “athlete biological passport,” which is a running record of their biological values developed over time from multiple collections of blood and urine samples. It’s used to complement and counterbalance direct testing methods.

But testing technology has to keep up with novel ways of cheating. Hair analysis, though not yet used by Olympic testing labs, may provide a wider window of detection than blood and urine analyses. Because hair grows about 1 cm per month, hair analysis can reveal drug use over a longer period.

For now, officials just want to avoid another doping scandal and have a “clean” 2018 Winter Olympics. “It is extremely important, and this is one of the reasons why we have the widest and the strictest ever pre-Games testing program,” said IOC’s Thomas Bach.

Let the games begin!

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