Playing dirty

Movies, books, coins, shells. These are conventional prey for the avid collector.

How about urine?

Humour me for a second.

I was first introduced to the world of urine collection last year. 6am in Poland, I woke to a knock on my door. “Doping control” the young girl announced. I was rooming with the Australian junior record holder over 100m, so I suspected they were after him.


A needle, a cup and countless awkward glances later, I sealed the golden elixir away and was free from the watchful eye of the doping chaperone. You always remember your first.

Granted, I was not privy to the journey my urine was about to embark upon.

What happens to the sample?

A lucky scientist from one of the 32 accredited World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) laboratories will have received my sample for testing. In 2015, WADA collected 303,369 samples.

Stage fright! Drug testing is intrusive, but as an athlete, doping control is an obligation to maintaining the integrity of sport. Urine and/or blood samples are collected. Used with permission: Kyle Merber

Most testing is conducted using mass spectrometry. This process ionises urine samples through a beam of electrons. Molecules are separated by mass and the contents of the urine can be determined.

In 2009, WADA introduced a tool to track changes in an athlete’s physiological markers over time. The biological passport detects the process of doping rather than the substance used. Whilst the introduction of the biological passport was new arsenal in WADA’s war on doping, athletes and their doctors have strong defences.

WADA’s battle seems futile.

Beating the system

The nature of sport is to seek improvement and test human capacity. With the correct medical instruction, evading detection is not difficult.

Of the 30 fastest male 100m sprint times ever, only nine have not been tainted by a doping offence. All nine belong to Usain Bolt.

The women’s 1500m final at the 2012 Olympic Games. Six of the top 9 athletes have been implicated in performance-enhancing drugs. Source: Wikimedia

WADA believe that one-third of Olympic and World Championship medals for endurance running between 2001 and 2012 were won by athletes with abnormal blood tests. ‘Abnormal’ is not enough to convict, so athletes compete with impunity.

Australian researchers determined that the process of ‘micro-dosing’ can effectively evade the biological passport. As the name suggests, athletes implement a little-but-frequent doping regime. Smaller gains manifest, but the risk of exposing large fluctuations on the biological passport is greatly reduced. At the pinnacle of the sporting world, even a 1% gain could be the difference in greatness and mediocrity.

Another common mode of ameliorating performance is by blood doping – a series of blood transfusions. Upon first removing blood, the body responds by increasing the haemoglobin cell count to normal levels. When the initial blood is re-infused, more blood cells are introduced to the body and aerobic capacity is bolstered beyond initial levels – fitter and faster.

Catch them all?

The inherent limitation of the biological passport program is that physiological markers are natural, and it is difficult to prove beyond doubt that these markers, such as haemoglobin, were increased by doping, not legal means like altitude training.

Furthermore, as humans are physiologically diverse, WADA cannot simply set biological intervals that constitute a ‘normal’ range.

Despite the undeniable physiological improvements from the use of performance-enhancing drugs, doping is not benevolent. Between 1987 and 1990, 20 Belgian and Dutch cyclists, who were suspected of doping, died of sudden heart attacks.

In order to fight doping, we need to understand the psychology: why dope? Perhaps the reward outweighs the risk. Sporting success has enormous socioeconomic benefits, particularly for athletes of third-world countries.

Let’s close on the eloquent words of French Olympic hammer-thrower Quentin Bigot: “Everyone does it. That’s how it is. If you don’t…. you’ll be at home.”

3 Responses to “Playing dirty”

  1. Alice Nicholl says:

    Really well written and great choice of topic! I wonder if we will ever live in a world were there is no doping, or if as detection technologies improve so will evasion techniques…thanks for a great post!

  2. Doping and sport will always go hand in hand. It’s frustrating but its the way it is.
    Great writing! I love it!

  3. Abeer Alshehri says:

    so interesting topic, something haven’t heard about it before, LOVE IT