Competition in the London Olympic Games ended August 12, 2012 with the results we expect and hope reflecting the natural ability, rigorous training, and determination of each athlete. An informative front page article in the July 26, 2012 "Post-Journal" explained how nine unidentified track and field athletes were banned from the London Olympic competition due to testing positive for performance enhancing drugs also known as doping. Over 71,000 tests were performed on 10,000 athletes leading up to the Olympics.
Methods and techniques of testing are beyond description in this article and beyond my comprehension even as a college biochemistry major. The public is content that testing weeds out the cheats so all athletes start out equal. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) prohibits substances which meet two of three criteria; the drug has the potential for enhanced sports performance, creates a health risk for the user, and violates the spirit of sport. This article will describe three major doping practices and a new analytical program, the athlete biological passport, designed to detect doping.
A major goal of athletes inclined to dope is to increase muscle size and strength, which can be accomplished by self injecting synthetic testosterone (commonly described as "steroids"), the male hormone. Today sophisticated testing can distinguish between normal and synthetic testosterone although results can be difficult to interpret since testosterone levels vary by age, normal day/night secretion, alcohol consumption, and training level. Side effects of long term steroid use include acne, increased cholesterol, testicle shrinkage, and aggressive behavior. The Belarussian female shot putter was stripped of her gold medal won in London last week after testing positive for a banned steroid. Twenty years ago I was shocked when a coworker who competed in recreational weight lifting told me he used steroids to enhance his performance. He subsequently, had a premature death!
This image demonstrates the three most commonly illegally used performance enhancing drugs, erythropoietin (EPO), human growth hormone (HGH), and testosterone.
Photo by Robert M. Ungerer
By increasing oxygen carried in red blood cells, muscles can function longer and recover faster thereby increasing endurance. This is sometimes illegally accomplished by injecting synthetic erythropoietin (EPO), a natural hormone present in the kidney, which stimulates the formation of red blood cells. This coupled by withdrawal of two units of the athlete's own blood, storing it for two weeks and re-transfusion of the blood just before competition increases oxygen delivery to muscles, effectively enhancing endurance. A 2008 Athens Olympic gold metal 50km race walker was banned from the 2012 London Games after recently testing positive for EPO. Just in the last year further refinements have been developed to distinguish natural EPO from the synthetic.
The third doping procedure, injecting synthetic human growth hormone (HGH), contributes to increased muscle efficiency especially in running sprint races. Side effects of HGH include muscle and joint pain, edema, increased cholesterol, and early maturation in teenagers. After 13 years of research, a reliable test for HGH doping became available just in time for the London games.
The United States government assumed responsibility of sending athletes free of doping to the Olympics by asking the Unites States Olympic Committee to create an independent testing organization, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). Today a new approach, called the athlete biologic passport, has been created which monitors and permanently records changes in the biochemical composition of an athlete's blood. Testing is done prior to competition and randomly out of season. Doping drugs change or create specific markers on proteins in the body which can be detected just like after eating asparagus one's urine has a unique aroma reminding them they ate asparagus. A travel passport records countries one visits. The athlete biologic passport becomes a permanent life long electronic record providing evidence of biochemical changes if illegal drugs are used. These can be compared to the athlete's own expected normal profile. Testing now can reveal doping with testosterone, EPO, and HGH.
The newest drug with potential for doping, telmasartan, stimulates an enzyme which increases muscle formation in mice. Studies proved increased long distance running ability in treated mice.
Ideally, sophisticated testing will discourage use of illegal drugs to gain an athletic advantage for fear of discovery and banishment from competition in the future.