LONDON, (Reuters) – The battle to keep drugs out of the London Olympics has started long before the opening ceremony next July.
A sophisticated laboratory provided by Britain’s largest drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), which will be packed with highly sensitive, rapid testing equipment and staffed around the clock with up to 100 scientists, stands ready and waiting.
Games organisers hope that their preparedness will deter cheats.
“We have a state-of-the-art facility, we have the best detection systems going, we’re right up to date with the science, and if athletes know you’ve got good testing and good detection systems, it really has a deterrent effect,” said David Cowan, head of the Drug Control Centre at King’s College London and the man who will oversee London 2012’s anti-doping regime.
His staff, which he has expanded to include eight times as many scientists as he would normally have, are aiming to conduct more than 5,000 tests at the London Olympics – roughly one for every two of the 10,000 or so athletes expected to take part.
As the science of detecting doping advances, athletes who cheat by using performance-enhancing drugs are devising ever more sophisticated doping regimes.
The drugs of choice for cheats cross a range of categories from anabolic steroids to human growth hormone, blood boosters such as erythropoietin (EPO), beta-blockers and stimulants or diuretics.
Andy Parkinson, chief executive of UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) said that until recently, cheats tended to stick to predictable drugs – power athletes such as weight lifters used anabolic steroids and endurance athletes such as cyclists and rowers used blood boosters.
With advances in detection methods, however, the cheats were being forced into using a little more ingenuity.
“What we’re seeing much more of now is sophisticated dopers who use multiple substances in a very tailored way,” Parkinson told Reuters in an interview.
“There’s a recognition that any substance can give you an enhancement – you just have to use it in the right way.”
For some, the need to evade highly-sensitive tests has even meant going back to “traditional” ways of blood doping that avoid the need for detectable drugs – using transfusions of their own blood which they have taken out and stored until they need a boost and transfuse it back in. Cowan says he is confident the science will be there to detect such transfusions by the time next year’s Games start.
“There is now much more research funding for scientists to be able to develop better methods of detection. There are very few loopholes, and they are being heavily researched,” he said.
Anti-doping experts are keen to ensure a lasting legacy from London 2012 which they hope will make sport cleaner and fairer in the future.
For Parkinson that means “going upstream” to find the coaches, the assistant coaches, the advisers and even the chemists who manufacture, supply and push doping drugs.
UKAD and its global umbrella group the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) are primarily focused on testing, catching and deterring drug cheats, but both groups are increasingly working in law enforcement agencies such as Interpol to gather and use intelligence about supply and trafficking of doping drugs.
WADA’s director general David Howman said earlier this year that a criminal underworld now controlled a large proportion of world sport.
Pauline Williams a medicines discovery and development scientist at GSK, said going upstream should also mean seeking to stem the original source of the drugs – rogue laboratories.
GSK signed a deal with WADA this month to help scientists develop early detection methods for drugs that have performance-enhancing potential.
“In the past…I don’t think we appreciated the sophistication that’s out there in terms of these rogue labs, copying our drugs at such an early stage. They’re getting ever more creative,” she told Reuters.
“From a pharma perspective we’re keen to be more transparent…but that is really a gift to these rogue labs who can see our data, see the chemical structure and have chemists who can then produce the drugs illegally. It’s the dark side.”
Experts say drugs have probably been used to enhance sporting performance for hundreds, if not thousands of years, so it is unlikely the problem of doping will be solved at London 2012, or anytime soon after that.
Anti-doping authorities say that is no reason to give in and Parkinson sees this as one of sport’s most important contests. “Science is always challenged to keep up,” he said.