BeijingOlympicsSteroidsThe reality is with us for a long time, but the acknowledgement comes just now.

Olympic officials finally admit the truth the Games may never be completely free from steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. Months leading up to the Summer Games in Beijing has netted dozens of athletes who tested positive for banned substance and/or violated testing protocols. And the fact that quite a few of those violators were possible gold winners rattles key sports leaders.

To keep up with the advancement in doping practices – emergence of new methods and drugs that elude screening – anti-doping officials adopt new testing policy for the coming years. It’s a paradigm shift for many anti-doping organizations as they adopt new procedures to respond to the newfangled problems in sports today.

Among these procedures is the so-called deterrent effect. Official will conduct frequent testing as well as scientific studies in designer drug detection. In Beijing Olympics, for example, WADA is expected to conduct 4,500 drug tests, the highest ever in the history of Olympics. Four years ago in Athens, WADA oversaw 3,500 tests and came up with 26 positive cases.

“I’ve said that we could expect between 30 and 40 positive cases [during the Games],” said International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge. “That is the extrapolation of the figures from Athens…If we have less, we must be extremely glad because that will mean that there has been a deterrent effect.

“Am I disappointed that there is still doping? Of course, I am. I hate doping. But we have to be realistic. It would be wrong to be Utopians. Doping is to sport what criminality is to society and there will always be criminality in society.”

Because of the stepped-up policy, the top five finishers in each event and two randomly chosen competitors will undergo a combination of blood tests and checks for the presence of synthetic EPO, an endurance-boosting hormone. Olympic organizers will also test for human growth hormone (HGH), the first they will do so. Further, scientists will also test for other key hormone levels and other signs that may indicate an athlete’s attempt to artificially enhance his or her performance.

Also as part of the new program, samples will be stored for eight years which will allow officials to conduct retests when scientists develop more efficient methods of detection.

John Fahey, head of WADA, is glad with other countries’ efforts to dissuade athletes from using performance-enhancing drugs. “…they (countries) have embarked upon a systematic testing regime in the months leading up to departure of their teams for Beijing. . . . I hope that in two weeks’ time, when we walk away from here, we’ve seen results that have made a significant step in the way back to confidence and integrity in sport.”

USADA testing program – will athletes come out clean?

Prior to the Beijing Olympics, the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) has recently adopted a pilot testing program with the goal of ideally getting rid of use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs in sports. The program has involved twelve American athletes who are preeminent in their respective sport discipline. The volunteer athletes include champion US sprinter Tyson Gay, record-setting swimming superstars Michael Phelps and Dara Torres; and Allyson Felix, two-time 200 meter world champion.

The USADA program has required a two-week period of blood and urine testing to determine a body chemistry baseline. After the baseline has been set, the volunteers have undergone unannounced blood and urine tests. Travis Tygart, chief executive officer of USADA, considered the program as the most advanced and comprehensive in the world.

Gay volunteered to the program to help clean the image of his sport. There had been doping scandals that now and then pop in mainstream media that involve high-profile track stars. Marion Jones, who is currently serving a six-month prison term, comes quickly to mind when talking about doping in athletics.

“I definitely understand people questioning people running fast because we’ve had several track athletes busted for steroids in the past,” Gay said. “I get tested whenever they want to test me. If it’s six vials of blood one week, then again the next week, that’s just the price I have to go through to make sure everything is OK.”

Tygart is also optimistic about the program’s end result.

“The general climate in sports today creates an unfair environment where athletes, whether setting world records or competing at an older age, are all of a sudden accused of doing it by performance-enhancing drugs,” Tygart said. “We want to do everything possible to take away that stigma for the clean athletes. We want to give athletes a testing platform that we all can have comfort in knowing they’re actually clean. That’s a dream of ours.”

Archaic and high-tech doping

According to a Boston Globe article, sports officials now have to contend with both low-tech methods (urine swapping) and revolutionary means (gene doping) to outsmart testing protocol.

The seven Russian track-and-field athletes caught days before the Games are accused of tampering with urine samples. DNA taken from the urine did not match DNA taken from the athletes, prompting one Olympics official to call it a case of “systematic doping.” Whether that proves true or not, urine tampering is a prime example of back-to-the-future cheating by athletes. Using someone else’s urine to pass drug tests was first done roughly 40 years ago.

As athletes try to evade new drug tests, future doping scandals appear likely to involve either low-tech methods from the past or frighteningly advanced science.

Gene doping is on the horizon for the 2012 London Olympics, though its short- and long-term effects are still largely unknown. To alter themselves on a cellular level, athletes inject synthetic genes designed to either promote muscle growth or increase endurance. Since the synthetic genes blend easily with the athlete’s DNA, it is impossible to detect gene doping without multiple muscle biopsies, which is not exactly practical when officials are already performing 4,500 tests during the Olympics.

“There is an expertise that makes us more effective than we ever were before,” said Fahey, the WADA chief. “That doesn’t mean to say that there aren’t cheats out there still, or that there might always be cheats out there.”

Gene doping, Fahey said, “May become something that enters the lexicon of doping in the days ahead, and we want to be there to pick it up and deal with it at an earlier stage. Much of what we do is about public health. At this point, we’re thinking about the world’s elite athletes. But to the point that this or any of those other drugs are taken, there is a risk to the health, sometimes the lives, of those who are doping.”

Unfortunately, that is not a strong enough deterrent for some athletes seeking gold. If athletes are willing to risk their lives by using steroids or gene doping, it is easy to see why measures taken by sports leaders can only lessen, not eliminate, cheating.