Steroids found their way into elite sports years before effective steroid tests were developed.
Then, as the science of steroid detection geared up, drug-cheating athletes and their pharmaceutical advisers switched to new performance-enhancing substances.
Always the quest was for a chemical that would make athletes bigger, stronger and faster – even while warding off the prospect of a career-ending positive drug test.
Photo by Thomas Faivre-DubozMarion Jones admitted in 2007 to taking
steroids supplied by BALCO.
That was the dynamic underlying the San Francisco Bay Area’s BALCO steroid scandal, in which baseball slugger Barry Bonds, Olympic queen Marion Jones and 30 other sports stars were accused of using a cocktail of designer steroids unknown to modern science.
Victor Conte, BALCO’s combination mad scientist and marketing director, guaranteed his customers that BALCO drugs would elude even the most sophisticated drug screen.
But BALCO’s signature designer steroid – “the clear,” a drug created from a steroid for beef cattle – turned out to be detectable after all.
A UCLA scientist, Dr. Don Catlin, devised a test by reverse-engineering the drug from a sample obtained from a used syringe. Some Olympic-caliber athletes and some members of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders tested positive. Meanwhile, the BALCO drug ring was broken up by federal agents.
But evidence from the BALCO investigation showed that many wealthy athletes were turning to another performance enhancing drug that really did seem seemed impervious to scientific detection – human growth hormone.
HGH was developed to treat dwarfism in children. It’s also prescribed to counter the dread effects of AIDS wasting disease.
Unlike a steroid, HGH wasn’t easily tracked in a urine test, scientists said. And although a blood test was devised by 2004, HGH seemed to clear a user’s system so quickly that testing seemed pointless.
Still, the World Anti-Doping Agency and its American counterpart, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, began administering the blood test to Olympians. Of the first 1,500 tests, all the athletes passed – evidence of the tests’s ineffectiveness, critics said.
Then, in February, came a seeming breakthrough. A British rugby player, Terry Newton, tested positive for HGH on the new test. Newton admitted using the banned substance.
The test worked, USADA said. It began pushing baseball to adopt the HGH test, suggesting that an end to HGH use in sports seemed at hand.
But an authoritative report last week suggested that optimism about the breakthrough may be misplaced. In interviews with doping expert Matt Chaney, both Catlin, the UCLA scientist who cracked the BALCO case, and British drug-testing pioneer Peter Sonksen raised significant questions about the reliability of the new test.
It is “simply not a useful test, no matter how you cut it or spin it,” Catlin told Chaney, whose book, "Spiral of Denial," detailed steroid abuse in college football.
Both experts raised the prospect of false positive results – an incorrect report that might well destroy the sports career of an innocent athlete.