Tests Suggest Revival Of Well-Known Drugs
Tuesday, August 22, 2006
A recent spate of positive drug tests among star athletes suggests that some are returning to more traditional forms of performance-enhancing substances and away from "designer" steroids that are more difficult to detect, according to sports doping experts.
Tour de France winner Floyd Landis, three-time Olympic medalist Justin Gatlin and five-time Olympic medalist Marion Jones have produced positive tests in recent weeks for well-known performance-enhancing drugs. The testing on Jones's sample has not yet been completed and she has not been charged with a doping violation.
Drug experts speculate that some athletes fear they can no longer get away with using designer steroids in the aftermath of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (Balco) scandal. Though more traditional performance-enhancing drugs carry the risk of detection, previously athletes were able to slip through testing as long as they were careful, the experts say.
However, athletes are now running into more sophisticated and aggressive testing methods by national and international sports bodies. Since the Balco scandal erupted in 2003, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and the World Anti-Doping Agency are using more effective -- but also more expensive and time-consuming -- tests on athletes who are under suspicion and in situations where cheating is more likely to occur.
"It's a combination of things," said David Black, a drug-testing expert from Nashville-based Aegis Analytical Laboratories who has testified in many doping cases. "The World Anti-Doping Agency and USADA have become more aggressive in following up information suggesting use . . . [and] accidents or mistakes will occur."
Landis tested positive for the steroid testosterone. Gatlin tested positive for testosterone or its precursors. In initial testing, Jones tested positive for erythropoietin (EPO), an endurance-boosting drug. Landis and Gatlin have said they did not knowingly take banned substances; Jones said yesterday through her attorney that she is "shocked" by the positive test.
The designer steroid THG was apparently used by athletes fearlessly and with abandon until a syringe of THG was sent to the USADA in the summer of 2003. It kicked off the scandal surrounding the Balco lab in Burlingame, Calif., and led to the steroid's detection in the urine of numerous track and field athletes.
The previous summer, Donald Catlin, head of the U.S. Olympic drug testing laboratory at UCLA, had discovered another designer steroid, norbolethone, but athletes had moved on to THG. Catlin also identified a designer form of EPO, a stimulant, and a number of other designer steroids sold in dietary supplements, most of which have since been removed from the market.
Catlin has identified nine designer steroids in the last three years. The attention given to Catlin's discoveries might be discouraging athletes and coaches from trusting new designer substances, even though chemists say the menu of possible undetectable drugs remains large.
"I could come up with [an undetectable steroid] that Catlin couldn't find if it were taped to his forehead," said a retired chemist who has worked with athletes in the past and requested anonymity. "But nobody is interested in" such substances.
The chemist and other sources said testosterone has long been a staple of drug-testing regimes because of its effectiveness and relative ease in sliding it past testers since it occurs naturally in the body and leaves the system relatively quickly. The fact that athletes can now take testosterone without injections -- testosterone patches and creams have been introduced by pharmaceutical companies in recent years -- has added to the substance's appeal.
Until recently, athletes could load up on testosterone as long as they monitored their ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone (T/E), making sure it did not surpass the suspicious-test threshold of 6 to 1 (the average human has a ratio of 1 to 1). At that threshold or higher, testing authorities would order a more extensive examination.
But things have changed. The threshold for flagging suspicious tests was lowered this year to 4 to 1. That meant more samples would be subjected to what amounts to testosterone confirmation testing: the carbon isotope ratio test, which Catlin popularized in the 1990s after developing the test with a Frenchman. That test can distinguish natural testosterone from exogenous testosterone.
And the USADA also has quietly begun using the carbon isotope ratio test routinely, rather than only on samples with an elevated T/E ratio. That means athletes who take testosterone but are savvy enough to ensure their ratios remain around normal levels still might get caught.
Gatlin's testosterone positive came only from the carbon isotope test, several sources said. The T/E ratio of Gatlin's sample was in the normal range, indicating he was the subject of targeted testing by the USADA, which either was looking at Gatlin specifically or a number of athletes at the April meet in Kansas during which he tested positive.
The World Anti-Doping Code allows drug-testing agencies to target athletes suspected of drug use.
Testing for EPO also has improved. Once a two-part test, a blood screen and urine confirmation, EPO exams are now often done using only the urine test, meaning that athletes using EPO who are smart enough to keep their blood profile within normal ranges now face detection.
Testing authorities also have broadened the population of athletes tested for EPO, having learned from the Balco scandal that the substance is abused among sprinters as well as endurance athletes. Jones was not subjected to a blood test, according to a source with knowledge of the testing.
"One thing that is clear is we have become increasingly better at detecting things," said Gary Wadler, a committee member for the WADA and spokesman for the American College of Sports Medicine. "Things athletes have gotten away with in the past are much more difficult to get away with."
Though the likelihood of mistakes among doping athletes increases when they use detectable substances, three sources who have been connected to drugs in sport said it defied reason that three top athletes would all be felled in one summer by their own carelessness. They speculated that Gatlin or Jones, or both, could have been sabotaged by rivals or enemies of Gatlin's coach, Trevor Graham, who used to coach Jones and evoked the ire of many in the track and field community when he sent in the syringe that turned investigators on to Balco. All of the sources requested anonymity.
Graham has blamed the positive test on a vengeful massage therapist who rubbed testosterone cream on Gatlin's legs shortly before he went into drug-testing after running a relay. The massage therapist has denied the allegation.
Two prominent track and field agents, Emanuel Hudson and Ray Flynn, have dismissed Graham's explanation, with Hudson calling it "stupid" and Flynn calling for Graham to be banned from the sport because of his connection to a number of athletes who have tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Meantime, USA Track and Field spokeswoman Jill Geer said the USATF proposed the Kansas meet for drug-testing months last fall; the USADA had nothing to do with the selection.
Gatlin's attorney, Cameron Myler, said she expected USADA to charge Gatlin formally this week, which means he would soon have a chance to make his case at a hearing. None of the cases has reached its conclusion.
"It's terribly important that we get into the nitty-gritty details," Wadler said. "We shouldn't assume any individual is in fact culpable until it's played out. [Athletes] have every right to make their case."