Editorial Article: Anti-Doping Testing at the Rio Olympics

Kerry Parker, SelectScience® Editor-in-Chief considers the true impact of science on professional sport

18 Aug 2016



Georgia Mills, Producer for The Naked Scientists, interviews SelectScience’s Editor-in-Chief to find out about her visit to the anti-doping labs that are testing this year’s Olympic athletes, as well as her thoughts on the current state of doping in sport.

Can you describe the facility and what they do?

The facility is made up of several rooms; the first of which is where they bring in the samples. Urine or blood samples are collected from athletes in the field, couriered in for processing and given unique codes, so nobody in the laboratory can know which athletes the samples pertain to.

Two samples are collected - an A and B sample. The A sample is processed and the B sample is always stored for future reference. It acts a secondary sample that is only opened if retesting needs to be performed. Next the samples are processed and go through different types of analytical procedures. Essentially, they’re looking for named substances or substances that look like banned substances but they’re also looking at unusual metabolomics or unexpected results.

The Rio laboratory I visited recently was absolutely amazing. They had a huge room full of instruments and it’s a very unusual set up compared to any other kind of laboratory you’ll find anywhere in the world. They’re going to be processing over 6,000 samples in about three weeks over the Olympics; that’s about 300 to 400 per day and they have to get those results out within 24 hours. Years of preparation go into setting up the equipment and training the staff to run a 24 hour lab.

How are the samples analyzed?

Generally, they’re doing analytical tests; they’re looking for particular compounds in say a blood or urine sample. You might use techniques called ‘chromatography’ and ‘mass spectrometry’. Firstly, molecules in a sample, such as urine are separated. Once those molecules are separated, the techniques are able to identify what those molecules are by their weight. It’s a very, very accurate type of science, and from that report the scientist can see if particular molecules are present or not in that sample at a very, very low level of detection.

What's really interesting about this whole world of doping, is that those athletes that do decide to dope may be utilising new designer drugs or substances every year.  Therefore, part of this laboratory’s work, is not just to look at what’s been banned but also to identify any new drugs currently being used.

With all the recent news about doping in sport, are we seeing an increase in the activity?

I don’t know that we can say that. All we can say is that the level of detection is increasing. The scientists can detect at a much better level and they can also now look forward as well as back. So I think the science is absolutely there, and the detection is there. Perhaps that’s why we’re hearing about it more in the news. Obviously, around the Olympics, these stories are really important, but we must not forget that athletes are actually tested all the time. It’s not just around these games, they are often tested in between competitions. Many of them have what's known as the ‘Athlete Biological Passport’. They’re collecting and recording data over time as well. So I think, when the Olympics comes round, it’s a topic that everyone’s interested in, but it’s something that is happening in the background all the time in athletics and sport.

To find out more, visit our The Science Behind the Olympics Special Feature by clicking here.