Olympic athletes targeted for retesting before Rio

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The International Olympic Committee (IOC) today announced many positive samples following analysis of urine samples taken during the Beijing Olympics, all from athletes likely to compete at Rio, with more likely to come from samples collected at London…

The IOC press release states 454 samples from athletes competing at Beijing have been retested and 31 have been found positive, from 12 different countries.  This gives a positive rate of 6.8%. After the 2008 games the statistics reported 20 positive samples from 4770 tests. Of those twenty positive cases 6 were horses, so only 14 positive athletes! This gives an original total positive test rate of 0.42%, with the new tests it is pushed up to just below 1%.  The global positive rate is usually between 1-2% so this isn’t unusual. What is unusual is the high percentage on retest. The IOC tell us these samples were from athletes who could potentially compete at Rio, so those who are still active.

The retest results from the London athletes haven’t yet been announced, but if they have a similar positive rate to Beijing retests we should expect around 17 more positives from the 250 samples.

I am interested whether they will report the incidence of meldonium in the samples. Even though it was not a doping offence to use it prior to 2016 it would be interesting to see the prevalence of use among high achieving athletes as far back as 2008 (before it really registered on the doping world radar).

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Why the new tests?

Usually the tests are undertaken because the laboratories have introduced new methods. This may be a new method that can detect a drug they didn’t know about in 2008 or just could not detect. It could also be because the lab has new improved methods for detecting a certain substance or substances. A good example may be growth hormone, where an improved test was introduced after the Beijing games but before London. This test can detect for days after use rather than the hours for the original test. New instruments mean the tests can be more sensitive, so a low level of a substance may not have been detected 8 years ago but with newer mass specs they may not see those levels.

It could also be the samples were not tested for the full range of substances initially – which missed these positives. This is the less likely reason for testing, but it can’t be ruled out!  One such test could be the carbon isotope ratio test for synthetic testosterone which is much more sensitive than the T/E ratio test, but used a lot less due to cost and analysis time.

This will also cause a cascade of further retests, with the potential new medalists samples being thawed and analysed. Who knows how many 4th place finishers were also doping…

Good news!

It is good news, particularly the news that these athletes won’t be competing in Rio. It is however bad news for the athletes that were beaten by these 31. An athlete may well have lost a medal and their time in the news for an athlete who has been found cheating 8 years later. An Olympic medal is a life changing event for most athletes and some may well have missed out.

This validates WADA/IOC choosing to store and re-analyse samples when improvements in the technology allow.  This is now potentially a very useful deterrent against doping in the future.

 

Close to 50 athletes could miss out on Rio due to past doping offences, this is good, but they have had 8 years of competing and winning prize money, advertising and so on. Let’s not feel too bad for them….

 

Dr Tom Bassindale

About Dr Tom Bassindale

Dr Tom Bassindale is a forensic scientist, and the founder of We Are Forensic. He's managed hundreds of forensic toxicology cases, and is an experienced court witness. He has specialist expertise in forensic toxicology and drug testing in sport. Dr B is currently a senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. And yes... he watches CSI.