December 12, 2016
Retesting Olympic samples exposes cheats
Given the revision of Olympic history that’s been required after drug retesting this year, its fortuitous medals are only engraved with the event they’re won in. Otherwise, more work would be needed to remove the mark left by athletes later found to have doped their way to the podium. Dozens of medals have been stripped from the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Olympics as the International Olympic Committee this year has retested its samples from those Games. With 101 positive tests and 82 sanctions so far, the total represents by far the most since the creation of the World Anti-Doping Agency. Retesting efforts that previously had been more scattershot became more focused as sport finds itself mired in doping scandals this year, mostly notably a state-sponsored system uncovered in Russia. The second part of a WADA-commissioned investigation into Russian doping led by Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren is set to be released early Friday. The IOC sanctions so far this year include 47 athletes stripped of their medals from 2008 and 2012. “It makes a big difference with this storing and retesting of samples,” said Richard Ings, the former CEO of the Australian Anti-Doping Authority, “but we need to understand it’s really making up for failures of the system before the competitions begin and it means that clean athletes miss out on their moment on the medal dais because someone who cheated walks home with the medals and it’s only uncovered six, seven, eight, nine, 10 years later.” While the IOC does not immediately reallocate medals, several athletes could be in line to receive belated recognition for their efforts. American high jumper Chaunte Lowe finished sixth in Beijing, but she could receive a bronze as three women ahead of her have been sanctioned. Pole vaulter Derek Miles finished fourth in Beijing and 800-meter runner Alysia Montano finished fifth in London. Both could receive bronze medals after athletes who finished ahead of them were sanctioned for doping. “The IOC has an absolute zero tolerance,” said Richard Budgett, IOC medical director. “Even though it might be painful for everyone, there’s absolute commitment to go through that. And if we have to rewrite history for the sake of clean athletes, then we’ll do it despite the fact that it brings sport, it brings federations, it brings groups of individuals into disrepute. That’s tough. The reality we’re uncovering, and in the long run it’s far better for sport to uncover everything that’s’ gone on than to say, ‘well, it’s just the past, let’s forget about it.’” Testing improvements WADA was created in 1999 and adopted its code in 2004. While athletes had been subject to drug testing prior to that, it represented a unified global system. While samples were stored from previous Games, the IOC has increased its re-testing efforts this year. About 600 re-tests were conducted on samples from the 2004 and 2006 Olympics, yielding five adverse analytical findings. By comparison, the IOC says it has conducted 1,053 re-tests on samples from Beijing, a total that is complete as it can no longer re-test after the 8-year statute of limitations. The IOC is continuing to retest London samples, with 492 analyzed so far and more positive tests expected.“The more doping testing you can do, the more positives you’ll find,” said Don Catlin, a long-time anti-doping expert and the scientific director of the Banned Substances Control Group. Budgett said the IOC has to balance the likelihood of finding a positive test with waiting to see if future advances in testing could better detect banned substances. Depending on the size of the sample remaining, only one test might be possible. While the IOC tested athletes from 89 National Olympic Committees from 16 sports from Beijing, the overwhelming majority of the sanctions have come against former Soviet countries. They represent 42 of the 49 sanctions announced for Beijing and all of the 33 sanctions announced for London, with Russia topping the list with 27. Overwhelmingly, the positive tests have come from weightlifting and track and field. And largely, they are for anabolic steroids that have been used for decades — namely turinabol and stanozolol. “I think it was the athletes at the time thought they had a very good way of cheating with what is an effective anabolic agent by taking micro doses,” Budgett said. But testing has improved since London to be able to detect long-term metabolites. Effectively, it allows scientists to see markers of use of the drugs over a longer period. Rather than needing to test within hours or days of an athlete taking a banned substance, the newer test detects markers of doping from days to weeks before the sample was collected. “It’s been a boon for the labs because they are improving methods,” said Catlin. “You sometimes wonder when you see all the cases that they find when they go back and test again, automatically, it’s a year or two later and the labs change and the methods get better and better.” Gaps in the system While the retesting has the benefit of turning up positive tests, even after the fact, it also highlights its role as a stop-gap measure in a sometimes porous anti-doping system, experts said. Ings points to studies the suggest 15-25% of elite athletes have used a banned substance at some point. Yet testing yields about 1-2% positive findings each year. “So the numbers of positives are not the universe of athletes that are doping in Olympic competitions,” Ings said, “but it’s getting closer to uncovering the true magnitude of cheating Olympic competition.” Rather than a systemic approach, retesting can be ad hoc. The WADA code does not set out guidelines for sample retention and retesting, leaving major sporting organizers, like the IOC, international federations that govern each sport and national anti-doping organizations to make that decision on their own. How they make those decisions can make up for gaps in the system in testing before a competition. The WADA independent observer report noted that 4,125 of the 11,470 athletes in Rio — or roughly 36% — were not tested in 2016 prior to the Games. That includes 1,913 in high-risk sports such as track and field and weightlifting among others. “This is what you get when a sport attempts to police itself,” USADA CEO Travis Tygart said. “It’s not a focus. It’s not a priority. And it’s not designed to achieve maximum deterrence and detection. It seems to be all a reaction to press.” Ings argues the IOC should be more transparent about who is or isn’t being retested and why, as well as which sports its stores samples in. Retesting is one of anti-doping’s most powerful tools, Ings said, but it needs better standards and structure to be effective. “There needs to be a uniform policy, and there’s absolutely none,” he said. “It doesn’t give us any confidence at all about all the medals that have been awarded. All we know is that a great many have been stripped.”
Retests for the 2010 Vancouver Games will be targeted next year as the statute of limitations nears, Budgett said.