Doping Can Catch Up To Olympians Eight Years Later

Aug 14, 2012
Originally published on August 16, 2012 12:07 pm
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Hours after the Olympic torch was extinguished in London, came news of the first medalist to be stripped of a medal for doping. The shot putter Nadzeya Ostapchuk, of Belarus, was stripped of her gold medal after she tested positive for an anabolic steroid. Earlier this month, another athlete from Belarus - a world champion hammer thrower - was sent home after a retest of his samples from the 2004 Olympics yielded a positive result.

Joining me to talk about the state of drug testing in sports, is T.J. Quinn. He's an investigative reporter for ESPN, and he follows doping. T.J., welcome to the program. Thanks for being with us.

T.J. QUINN: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: In the case of the hammer thrower we mentioned, they were retesting samples from 2004. Why are they going back that far?

QUINN: Mostly because they can. It's been on the books for a long time with the World Anti-Doping Agency - and all the bodies, like the IOC, who sign up with them - that an important part of drug testing as a deterrent, is to keep those samples. There are things that people will take that may not be detectable at the time, but the science keeps improving.

So there had been pressure on the IOC to go back and test these samples from Athens, for awhile.There's an eight-year statute of limitations, and they were a little slow to react. But after pressure from the press, and from World Anti-Doping Agency, they finally did recheck a number of those samples.

BLOCK: And did they say how many athletes they were retesting? Was it all medalists from those games, or just those who were competing again in London, in 2012?

QUINN: They wouldn't say who it was, or what sports they were. They try to keep kind of a low profile on that. And once they even find something that they hadn't seen before - there was a drug that turned up; it's called CERA, which is a more advanced version of EPO, a very popular blood-doping product. It was undetectable at the time. They went back and tested, I think, about 100 samples, and several came back positive. Now they've got to check and see, did those people have a therapeutic-use exemption? Did they have something giving them permission to use that drug? And if not, are they going to be able to find a B-sample that corresponds to that first positive? There's a whole procedure of due process that they have to go through, before anybody is punished.

BLOCK: If they're testing, T.J., at the games themselves, would they be missing a lot of doping that would've been going on leading up to the games; performance-enhancing drugs that wouldn't be detected at the games themselves, maybe?

QUINN: They'd miss almost all of it, if that's all they did. You know, in 1968, when they first introduced testing, they were doing it just in competition. And the reality is, competition is one of the least likely times you're going to find somebody on something. The real heavy work - for anybody who knows anything about doping - is in the off-season. You're going to do a much heavier regimen. And most of the drugs they're using now, when they cheat, are pretty tough to detect as it is.

So when you get down to the games, unless it's an endurance sport - like cycling, where somebody's been at it for a long time - it's probably out of their system; which is why a lot of people look at drug testing - they say it's actually not a drug test, it's an IQ test; that if you were dumb enough to fail, you deserve to get caught.

BLOCK: And for the testing that's done ahead of the games, is that up to the individual countries themselves? I've seen concern raised about - for example, testing in Jamaica, home to Usain Bolt, now the fastest man on the planet; but a lot of questions about whether he has really done it on his own, or if there's doping involved.

QUINN: Well, it's - part of it's inevitable. Any time somebody, you know, overwhelms a sport the way Usain Bolt has, you're going to look at him a little funny to begin with. That's just the era we live in. But there have been a lot of criticisms about Jamaica's national anti-doping agency, and how seriously they were really looking into that problem. They say they're doing their best, but the rest of the world looks and says, OK, there are some great athletes; no question. But how is this tiny, little island able to produce so many world-class sprinters? That's part of the reason why they keep the samples a long time. Maybe, if somebody was doping, it's something they couldn't find right now.

But even if Usain Bolt, and all his teammates, were perfectly clean, the reality of the era is you're never going to do something superlative, and not have a little bit of doubt in people's minds that there may be some other explanation.

BLOCK: T.J. Quinn, investigative reporter with ESPN, thank you.

QUINN: Anytime. My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.