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We all know about the athletes that get caught using performance enhancers—it’s all over the news, after all. But the bigger story is about the athletes that use these drugs without getting caught. How do they get around the system and pass stringent tests that are supposed to be state of the art? We spoke with a leading doctor to get a better understanding about how it’s done, and asked the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) how they try to stay ahead of athletes looking to manipulate the system.
Dr. Thomas O’Connor, MD, an internal medicine physician who specializes in the effects of anabolic steroid abuse in men, said one of the main factors in cheating drug tests is “timing and knowing how to play the game.”
“A lot of guys are gambling in time—[they] know when to stop the drug before they’re going to get tested, based on the pharmacology and half-life of the drug,” O’Connor says.
Each of the four North American major sports leagues—NBA, MLB, NFL,and NHL—has its own drug-testing policy, but O’Connor, who’s known as the “Metabolic Doc,” adds that each has loopholes and that the fitness world is largely devoid of such testing.
“The pro bodybuilders, power lifters and strongmen—there’s no drug testing, currently,” he continues, even citing Arnold Schwarzenegger recent call for a drug-free bodybuilding circuit to help change that.
In addition to athletes understanding the timing of drug testing, O’Connor also evokes the Whizzinator (a fake penis and synthetic urine kit) and masking agents as some of the more extreme measures athletes are willing to utilize to cheat their respective system. One can do a quick Google search for “drug test masking products” and find a deluge of options to choose from, including the aptly named PassYourDrugTest.com, which sells everything from cleansing teas and mouthwashes to shampoo and chewable tablets, all designed to pass different tests, mostly for recreational drugs.
With shameless measures like that, it’s difficult for sports leagues and organizations like WADA to stay on top of athletes’ shenanigans. They, too, have had to resort to extreme measures to supplement their traditional testing.
WADA, for example, told us in a statement that it uses “the Athlete Biological Passport (ABP), which monitors selected biological variables over time that indirectly reveal the effects of doping, as well as increased focus on intelligence and investigations –including information from whistleblowers– to uncover non-analytical Anti-Doping Rule Violations (ADRVs).”
WADA also goes to the lengths of collaborating with pharmaceutical companies to be on the cutting edge of drug trends and developments.
“This allows our scientific experts to develop detection methods for these substances at an early stage, putting us one step ahead of the cheats,” WADA’s statement adds. “Thanks to this collaboration, over the years, several athletes have been caught for drugs still in development and not even commercially available to patients.”
Even with all those precautions, athletes will keep seeking that edge and organizations will remain trying to stay one step ahead.