Olympics drugs

“Doping” and the Olympic Games

“Doping”, that is the use of “performance-enhancing substances”, has been a part of the Olympic Games most likely forever, but only in 1967 did the IOC (International Olympic Committee) formally ban the use of these drugs, foods, and other biological agents that athletes have used to give them a winning edge.

The official list of banned substances grows each year, and as a sign of the times, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) now has made the list of 240 substances available as an iPhone app.

The list includes categories such as anabolic steroids (like the many testosterone variants), stimulants, diuretics (to lose weight and flush out drugs in the urine), hormones (including growth hormones), alcohol (in certain events), steroids, beta-blockers (to decrease tremor in events like archery), and others such as blood and oxygen transfusions. This year’s list even includes “gene doping”, that is “the use of normal or genetically modified cells” although that risk, this year at least, is probably still theoretical.

A complete new drug-testing facility was built outside of London for this year’s Olympics and it employs 150 scientists working around the clock for the constant processing of samples. About half of the 10,000 athletes (and horses) will be subjected to random testing, that can occur at any time from the Opening to the Closing Ceremonies. Also the top five finishers in each event will undergo mandatory blood, breath, and/or urine testing.

In an attempt to prevent scandals during the Games themselves, WADA began testing even before the Opening Ceremony, and over 107 athletes were banned before entering the Olympic Village because of positive tests in the previous six months.

Are all these efforts enough to stop the use of performance-enhancing substances? Many experts say no, and cheating can still occur in several ways. Athletes may be able to escape even out-of-competition testing many months before the Games, during their power, speed, or strength-building phase of training, or they can try to use ultra-short-acting chemicals that may not be detected.

Some doping officials compare the testing for drugs like an arms race—there are chemists consistently tweaking the formulas and delivery methods of performance-enhancing agents to escape detection just as WADA invests in more state-of-the-art technology to keep up. Shortly before the Opening, for example, a new test was developed that lengthened the “window” for a positive test for Human Growth Hormone from a few days to several weeks.

Thanks to improved testing, London 2012 may be the “cleanest” Olympics ever. WADA has done a good job of educating the athletes and trainers that cheating is just too risky. So far only one of the more than 3000 blood and urine samples collected during the Games have tested positive (a U.S. judoka said he unknowingly ate something baked with marijuana prior to the Games).

Even past the Closing Ceremonies, WADA will keep all samples frozen, and as more advanced testing is developed, the saved samples can be subjected to the newer tests at any time during the next eight years. By the time of the Rio Games, who knows…even gene testing may become part of the routine!

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