The group responsible for keeping America's Olympic team drug free could be easily confused with a police force this summer.
The Colorado-based U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has demanded access to grand jury testimony and charged four sprinters with using steroids. It kept track and field's biggest star - Marion Jones - under a cloud of suspicion as she failed to qualify in the 100 meters, her signature event.
If USADA seems aggressive, it's only because the cheaters themselves have become so brazen, officials say.
Since the agency was created after the 2000 Sydney Olympics, 85 athletes were nabbed with a witches' brew of chemicals. There were hormones used to put bulk on dogs and livestock, water pills meant for race horses and people with high blood pressure, and asthma drugs that made cows leaner and beefier.
To keep illegal doping under control, USADA sends out a battalion of about 100 officers during the year to training facilities, events, even the athletes' homes to test for drugs. But some drugs in use today were synthesized specifically to be undetected, and this is what worries officials the most.
"There have been rumors that there might be designer steroids for several years, and no one knew whether that was true or not," said Larry Bowers, a medical technology specialist for USADA. "Now we know for sure that there are people trying to defeat the system."
In 2002, cyclist Tammy Thomas received a lifetime suspension for taking a steroid called norbolethone. Norbolethone was never marketed by any pharmaceutical company, and authorities believe someone may be secretly manufacturing it.
Recently, shot putter Kevin Toth and hammer throwers Melissa Price and John McEwen were found with a previously unknown steroid called tetrahydrogestinone, or THG. Drug monitors had no idea THG existed until a coach handed authorities a syringe containing the drug last year.
It's possible, those who help prepare and conduct the tests admit, that despite USADA's efforts an athlete will compete in Athens juiced on another drug they've never heard of.
THG "is the only one we know about," said Dr. Alan Rogol, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of Virginia. "There may be another 23 out there."
International anti-doping authorities publish a list of prohibited doping methods that is updated every year with an archive of substances athletes have been caught with as well as futuristic strategies like "gene doping" - using genes or genetically modified cells to enhance athletic performance - that officials expect to encounter someday.
Some of the most common and effective of the illegal substances are anabolic-androgenic steroids. These are synthetic drugs related to testosterone that stimulate muscle growth and function. Athletes taking them may be able to train harder and longer, though they may also suffer side effects including baldness, shrunken testicles and acne. Women may have their menstrual cycles disrupted or become infertile.
"There are data that shows you can get quite a bit stronger if you take steroids," Rogol said. "The athletes knew this for 30 years, even though the doctors didn't."
The list also includes growth hormone, which in theory increases the proportion of lean muscle to fat in the body. Children who produce too much growth hormone can become giants, experiencing a condition called acromegaly that affected pro wrestler Andre the Giant and former NBA center Gheorghe Muresan.
In adults, growth hormone hasn't been shown to definitively make someone stronger or faster, Rogol said. "But remember, we said the same thing about steroids."
Officials say a test for growth hormone doping will be complete soon, but currently there isn't a way to check how many athletes use it.
The list also contains a number of drugs that don't seem as if they'd do much for an athlete. The magic for many of these substances is in the side effects.
Ritalin, the weight-loss drug ephedrine and the cold-relief medicine Sudafed are stimulants.
There also is a class of drugs called "beta 2 agonists" that include the asthma medication clenbuterol. While good for asthmatics, clenbuterol also has the side effect of making animals bigger and meatier.
"There was a time that we couldn't get it, because some people in the cattle industry were using it" illegally, said Jeff Wilcke, a veterinary pharmacologist at Virginia Tech. "It's really hard to detect. When you stop feeding it to cows, it's gone - boom - but the muscle is still changed."
Despite the side effects, there is tremendous pressure these drugs for top athletes, said Dr. Linn Goldberg, head of the Division of Health Promotion and Sports Medicine at Oregon Health & Science University.
"A world class athlete can have a multimillion-dollar contract and a medal and a shoe line," Goldberg said. "But let's say you're the fourth fastest guy in whatever. Are you going to get a contract? You won't even get your name mentioned."
To counter this, Goldberg and USADA sponsor education programs to teach athletes how illegal doping can destroy their careers and potentially erase any achievements they made in the past.
There will probably always be some way to cheat, Bowers said. In the end, no matter how enforcement changes, it will probably always be up to the athletes themselves to decide whether illegal doping will stay in the Olympics.
"Perhaps we will someday have a group that agrees that drugs are not part of sports," Bowers said.
© 2017. All Rights Reserved. | Contact Us