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Drugs in sports: Who is winning the doping war?

As scientists close the gap on doping detection, athletes bent on cheating can still game the system. Stricter enforcement from league authorities is critical to redeeming sports scandalized by doping – cycling, baseball, and potentially the NFL.

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For much of the past three decades, Don Catlin has been on the front lines of the campaign against PEDs. The lab where he used to work, the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory, was the first of its kind when it was founded in 1982. In it, he and his team developed a wide range of tests for PEDs including anabolic steroids, EPO (erythropoietin), and tetrahydrogestrinone (known as THG or "the clear" – the drug at the center of the BALCO scandal).

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"Things are moving forward. But they're also stepping back," he says.

In particular, Armstrong's doping program, revealed in an October report by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), gives Mr. Catlin pause. While scientists are better than ever at identifying banned substances, athletes still can game the system.

"We thought we had this whole problem nailed," he says. "We spent a lot of time trying to find the drugs and get them in pure form. But that doesn't deal with how you get the drug into the athlete, or the athlete sending in someone else's urine."

Others agree that the cat-and-mouse game of doping has changed from decades ago, when athletes were using cutting-edge PEDs that scientists couldn't detect. "I think the doping athlete today is looking to use tried-and-true doping agents in a manner to avoid detection, rather than find something currently undetectable," Dr. Stray-Gundersen says.

The financial advantage is clearly with the athletes.

"The annual budget for WADA [the World Anti-Doping Agency] is $28 million, which is the price of one good baseball player," Catlin says. "How do you expect to really catch guys with that kind of money?"

In the wake of numerous doping scandals in track and field and cross-country skiing, among other sports, the Olympics adopted WADA's World Anti-Doping Code in 2003. Its recommendations include having an independent third party (not the league itself) conduct the drug tests, a routine of rigorous and random in-season testing, and harsh punishments for athletes who are caught.

Under the code, athletes can be banned for two years for the first infraction and banned for life for the second. They also have to pick one hour a day, seven days a week, to be available for unannounced testing.

Scientists say frequency and timing are key to effective testing, and testing at the 2012 summer Olympics was more aggressive than ever. Half of all competitors were tested, as well as every medal winner.

During the Games, Olympians could be tested anytime, without any advance notice. The antidoping lab used during the London 2012 Olympics was the first ever underwritten by a major pharmaceutical company, Glaxo-SmithKline; it tested 400 samples per day.

WADA also advocates the use of a "biological passport" – a compilation of data that shows each athlete's natural level for certain biological markers and hormones. That way, scientists can monitor those levels for unusual activity. Biological passports played a key role in cycling's doping crackdown.


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