LONDON (AP) — The competition on the track, in the pool and on the playing fields won’t be the only place where medals are won and lost at the Beijing Games.
The perennial battle between doping cheats and drug-testers will be more intense than ever, as Olympic officials strive to protect the games’ integrity following a slew of scandals that have tarnished the sports world in recent weeks and months.
The International Olympic Committee promises to carry out the most rigorous and comprehensive anti-doping program in sports history, with hundreds of more tests, increased out-of-competition checks and enhanced controls for EPO and human growth hormone.
The IOC also is ready to act on intelligence and tip-offs to target suspected cheaters and ask Chinese law enforcement authorities to go after any suppliers or organized drug gangs.
“They know that we mean business,” IOC president Jacques Rogge said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Athletes know that we are going to chase them. Finding a hiding place is becoming more and more difficult.”
The IOC plans to conduct 4,500 doping controls in Beijing, up from 3,600 in Athens four years ago and 90 percent more than in Sydney in 2000. Rogge said the program includes more than 700 blood tests, including 400 for HGH.
Despite the strong measures, there is no guarantee these games will be any cleaner than others, because potential cheaters can still find ways to beat the tests or might be using substances that are undetectable.
The testing period begins with the opening of the Olympic village on July 27 and runs through the end of the games on Aug. 24. Even before reaching Beijing, athletes can be tested at their homes, training camps and other locations anywhere in China or around the world.
During the competitions, the top five finishers and two randomly selected athletes in each event will be tested for the usual menu of steroids, stimulants, blood boosters and other performance-enhancers.
Samples will be taken by armed guard from 41 collection stations to a new doping lab near the main Olympic stadium, where 180 scientists and staff will be on 24-hour duty to analyze the specimens. Blood samples will be stored for eight years to allow scientists time to develop better tests with new technology.
Under a newly adopted IOC rule meant to signal a powerful deterrent, any athlete caught doping in Beijing and subsequently suspended for at least six months will be barred from the next Summer Olympics in London in 2012.
The Athens Games produced 26 doping cases, more than double the previous Olympic high of 12 at Los Angeles in 1984. Six medalists, including two gold winners, were caught in Athens.
With many more tests scheduled in Beijing, it would be natural to assume there will be more positive cases.
But Rogge said that might not be the case, citing the deterrent effect and knowledge that athletes can be tested at any time and any place.
“I’d be surprised if there would be a big difference with Athens,” he said. “Every positive case is a sad thing for the reputation of sport. On the other hand, there is always a silver lining to every cloud. Every positive case is a protection for the clean athletes.”
In the constant cat-and-mouse game between cheaters and testers, Rogge believes the gap is closer than ever before. Over the last 40 years, he said, the IOC has gradually caught up by developing tests for the preferred doping substances of each era — amphetamines, steroids, EPO, blood transfusions, testosterone and now HGH.
“It’s as narrow as I have witnessed myself in the fight against doping,” Rogge said. “We know there are some loopholes. We fight with the weapons we have.”
The IOC also must fight against eroding public confidence. High-profile doping cases involving Marion Jones, Floyd Landis, Tim Montgomery and Justin Gatlin — to name a few — have strained the credibility of sports, leaving many wondering whether top performances are legitimate or chemically enhanced.
“The vast majority of the athletes are clean,” said Rogge, citing statistics that just 1 percent to 3 percent of doping tests are positive. “There is a minority of people who are cheating, and that taints the whole sport. People have suspicions about world records and major victories which are, in fact, unfair.”
EPO, a synthetic hormone which enhances endurance by stimulating the production of oxygen-rich red blood cells, and HGH, which can help build strength and aid recovery, are considered two of the main drugs of choice among cheaters.
EPO tests were first carried out at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, with HGH controls introduced in Athens and the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy. No positives were recorded for either substance.
The IOC and World Anti-Doping Agency insist the tests have been improved, with Rogge saying the detection levels of HGH controls have been augmented “by more than 50 percent.”
However, experts say the tests can still only detect the use of HGH going back about 24 to 48 hours, meaning athletes can time their use of the drug so that it clears their system.
“It’s one of the limitations. We know that,” Rogge said. “Nevertheless, it’s a major deterrent effect, and it will hopefully catch the cheats if they take it.”
The HGH testing will be focused on pre-competition periods.
“It makes no sense to do it in competition because of the short window,” Rogge said. “We will also test targeted sports.”
Another crack in the drug-testing system is the inability to detect autologous blood transfusions, whereby athletes withdraw their own blood, store it and reinject it to increase their red blood cell count. The IOC tests, however, can detect transfusions involving another person’s blood.
“We know this is a loophole,” Rogge said. “We’re not going to hide that. For the rest, we think we are pretty up to date. There has not been a major breakthrough in testing, but I don’t think there has been a major breakthrough in cheating either.”
Advances in other testing areas are kept quiet to keep athletes guessing.
“We don’t need the athletes to turn off the tap now,” WADA director general David Howman told The Associated Press. “If they want to risk it, they risk being caught.”
Not all anti-doping experts are convinced the system will ensure clean games in Beijing.
“What drugs are out there that will fly under the radar anyway?” Robin Parisotto, an Australian researcher who helped design the EPO test for the Sydney Olympics, wrote recently. “Sure, the tried-and-true drugs like steroids, stimulants and blood doping will be easy meat for testers, but I suspect most, if not all, the cheats will have stopped taking these drugs before entering the Olympic Village.”
No-notice out-of-competition checks are considered the most effective way of catching cheats.
The IOC targeted Greek sprinters Kostas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou on the eve of the opening ceremony in Athens. The athletes failed to show up for the tests and then claimed they were injured in a motorcycle accident. Forced to pull out of the games, they later were suspended for two years.
A number of Olympic athletes already have been caught ahead of the Beijing Games.
Eleven of Greece’s 14 Olympic weightlifters tested positive for steroids and were banned for two years. The entire Bulgarian weightlifting team was yanked after 11 of its athletes were busted for steroids.
WADA expects national Olympic committees around the world to screen their athletes in advance to make sure they take clean teams to Beijing.
“The responsibility for clean athletes does not belong to WADA or the IOC — it’s a national or team responsibility,” Howman said.
If there is hard evidence of suspicious activity in Beijing, the IOC won’t hesitate to ask the police to go into the village to crack down on doping rings — just as it did in Turin when Italian police raided the Austrian ski team’s lodgings and confiscated banned substances and blood doping equipment.
“We are not calling police for doping by an individual athlete,” Rogge said. “This is for people who are selling doping products or have major possession of doping products or are actively helping other athletes to dope.”
Whatever happens in Beijing, experts predict the next major battle will be against gene doping, or the use of gene therapy to enhance performance. Although there is no evidence athletes are using it yet, WADA vice president Prof. Arne Ljungqvist sounded an ominous warning.
Scientists working on potential genetic cures for muscle diseases and blood disorders, he said, are being approached by sports figures who ask about the use of genes to enhance performance.
Drug-testing at previous Summer Games