LONDON — Before a starting gun has been fired or a medal awarded, one of the most intense competitions of the London Olympics is already being waged behind the scenes.
From training grounds across the world, to rooms in the athletes village, to border checkpoints around the U.K., the cat-and-mouse game between drug cheats and the doping police is in full swing.
The goal: to deter or catch dopers before they line up to compete. And those who slip through the pre-games crackdown will face the most extensive ant-doping program in Olympic history, with more tests and more advanced testing techniques.
“The more cheats we can catch is the better for the clean athletes,” IOC President Jacques Rogge told The Associated Press.
The IOC and London organizers will be conducting more than 5,000 urine and blood tests overall, up from 4,770 in Beijing four years ago. Nearly 40 percent of the tests are being carried out before the games start on July 27 to try to nab athletes when they’re more likely to be doping.
During the games, which run until Aug. 12, the top five finishers – plus two other athletes chosen at random – will be tested. Athletes are also subject to surprise out-of-competition controls at any time and any place. Samples will again be saved for eight years to allow for retroactive testing.
“I think it’s the tightest net we have ever had,” IOC vice president Thomas Bach said.
The official Olympic testing program went into effect on Monday with the opening of the athletes village.
A nondescript building in the northern suburb of Harlow houses the doping lab where an athlete’s reputation can be ruined by a positive result.
The lab will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and test up to 400 samples a day for more than 240 banned substances.
The IOC will act quickly on any positive results, setting up a disciplinary committee to investigate and hold a hearing. If found guilty of doping, athletes face disqualification from the games, loss of any medals and public shame.
The 2004 Athens Olympics produced the highest number of doping cases at any games — 26, more than double the previous high of 12 in Los Angeles in 1984. Six medalists, including two gold winners, were caught in Athens from among 3,600 tests.
That number could still rise: IOC medical commission chairman Arne Ljungqvist told the AP this week that he is investigating up to five suspected positive results uncovered in the recent retesting of Athens samples.
In Beijing four years ago, there were 14 positive tests among athletes and six among horses in the equestrian competition. Later, retests of the Beijing samples caught five more athletes for use of CERA, an advanced version of the blood-boosting drug EPO. Rashid Ramzi of Bahrain was retroactively stripped of his gold medal in the 1,500 meters.
“The fact that people know that samples can be analyzed again is a big deterrent,” Ljungqvist said. “If athletes don’t get caught now they may be caught tomorrow.”
More and more, anti-doping authorities are using intelligence and cooperation with law enforcement agencies to go after the cheats.
At the Turin Winter Olympics in 2006, Italian police — acting on a tip-off from the IOC — raided the lodgings of the Austrian cross-country and biathlon teams, seizing doping substances and equipment.
“We will not hesitate to work with public authorities and police forces as we have done in Turin when needed,” Rogge said.
Suspected dopers are being targeted for testing. UK Anti-Doping, the national agency set up in 2009, operates a 24-hour anonymous hotline for whistleblowers to provide information about doping and trafficking.
“We’ve got a clearer picture of the possible threat of doping and this can filter down to individual athletes,” UKAD chief executive Andy Parkinson said. “We’re starting to see a lot of activity in terms of athletes being prosecuted in advance of the games.”
Drug-testers have another new weapon at their disposal: the athlete biological passport. The program, adopted by cycling, track and field, swimming and other sports, tracks an athlete’s blood profile over time. Changes can indicate doping and lead to sanctions without a positive test.
Another novelty is the IOC’s policy that prohibits athletes from bringing in needles and syringes unless approved for legitimate medical reasons. Needles are banned from housing areas, locker rooms and training and competition sites. In addition to being used for doping, needles pose a health risk to cleaners and staff.
Ljungqvist said the quality of the testing has also advanced, with more sensitive techniques to detect the steroids, stimulants, hormones and other chemicals used to enhance performance. The detection window for human growth hormone and other drugs has improved so the use of drugs can be traced back more than a couple of days.
“We have widened the window steadily,” Ljungqvist said.
How clean will be the London Games be?
“I have no crystal ball,” Rogge said. “We have a stronger policy than in the past. It could be that we catch more cheats than in the past, but it could be also that the deterrent effect is big enough to stop many of them.”
Parkinson, the UKAD chief executive, said ultimately it depends on the athletes more than the testers.
“There is only so much we can do,” he said. “We have to recognize that some athletes may want to cross the line and cheat during the games. We want everyone standing on the podium to be proud of being a clean athlete and not have any person question their performance.”