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Sports in the pillory: Looking into the laboratory of doping detectives

Not only Austrian athletes were "suspected" of winning medals at the Olympic Games of Athens in 2004. Also the little countries anti-doping specialists who ensure fair competitions were top of the world.

A medicament also used for doping: Aranesp (EPO)
Picture by T. Micke

Cheating is as old as competitions and you can be sure that even at the Olympic Games of the Ancient World where they were fighting for the desired laurels all known means were used (read the stories of Asterix). They didn't use drugs like EPO, THG or HGH back then, but bull testicles, cannabis and toadstools that in some cases had similar life-threatening effects.

At this years Olympic Games the little country of Austria will not only be represented by its athletes, but with Christian Reichel from the "Austrian Research Centers" in Seibersdorf (Lower Austria) also in the team of doping inspectors. In the research centers in Lower Austria a computer software was developed that simplifies the distinction between EPO or Nesp, two popular steroids, and endogen hormones. And the international Anti-Doping-Agency WADA doesn't want to do without this technology at the Games.

The test laboratory of the research center has an excellent reputation among the 30 official test institutes worldwide. Besides national and East-European sports associations, by order of the UEFA, urine of many Champions-League-soccerplayers are checked here. In Austria about 3000 samples are tested every year keeping strict secrecy.

Anonymous and numbered samples of athletes, tested in the laboratory
Picture by T. Micke

In April 2004 Anastasia Kapachinskaya, a Russian 200-metres-sprinter, stumbled across doping inspectors from Seibersdorf. At the World Championships in 2003 the Russian came in second, beaten only by Kelli White, an American, who was also convicted of doping. And Torri Edwards who came in third, was thrown out of the US Olympic Team just before the Games in Athens, because of taking forbidden means. A podium full of cheating world champions...

"We always receive two urine samples that have to be taken in the presence of two inspectors", says Edmund Benetka, chief of the responsible department of chemical analysis: "We only know whether the athlete is male or female, and the sport he or she is competing in. Sometimes we also know the nationality but everything else is kept anonymous. Only when the "A-sample" is positive, as it was in the case of the Russian, we get to know the athletes identity, because they have the right to attend the test of the "B-sample" which until then stays sealed in a special freezer. If such a test is imminent the laboratory is closed for visitors" Benetka explains. "So you are lucky today!"

"Discovery" represents a new piece of technology among the extensive test equipment in Seibersdorf. This unit is able to prove THG with its accurate denomination: the first drug only produced for doping that doesn't show up in the samples using common analytical methods. If inspectors had not accidentally found an injection needle containing this designer-steroid produced by a US company named "Balco" we would still be wondering about the supernatural achievements of Kelli White, relay race Olympic Champion Calvin Harrison and about those of Dwain Chambers, the fast Briton.

An end of this cat-and-mouse game is unforeseeable. Momentarilly Seibersdorf is preparing for genetic doping: "Here the body is stimulated to intensify the muscle growth (note: successfully tested on rats) by sneaking manipulated genes. It would be a great progress, if it was used for medicating patients suffering from amyotrophia. But you could also medicate talented young athletes thus creating human running machines systematically."

By the way: athletes protesting their innocence may say the truth. Benetka: "Three years ago we randomly tested 50 so-called "dietary supplements" for forbidden steroids and we found them in alarming 20 per cent of them. On the packages of these products there was nothing to read about anabolics." Nevertheless the chemist doesn't accept these excuses: "In the end, every athlete is solely responsible for the substances inside his body. So he has to better read up on what he is ingesting."

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© A report by Tobias Micke (08-08-04) – Contact