- Doping is fairly widespread among elite athletes.
- The World Anti-Doping Agency does extensive testing to prohibit the practice, but experts say their rules may leave room for cheating.
- Athletes may also be microdosing steroids as a means of flying under the testing radar.
- Microdoses could provide a significant boost that remains in the system just for the length of an Olympic event.
Cheating in the Olympics isn’t that hard.
Estimates suggest that between a third and nearly half of elite athletes use steroids or other drugs to boost their performance, according to a January study commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, or WADA.
“It’s like taking candy from a baby. That’s how easy it is for smart chemists and advisers to circumvent WADA testing,” Victor Conte, the controversial supplement maker who served jail time for his role in a 2003 doping scandal, told The Guardian.
The problem may be getting worse, thanks to a new doping strategy. Microdosing may allow athletes to give themselves a perfectly timed boost that cannot be detected with current testing. The method capitalises on the same doping schemes that athletes have been using for years, but involves a very small dose of a steroid – which stays in the system just long enough to give an extra advantage during an event. By the time an athlete reaches the finish line, the drugs are no longer present.
“This is figuring out how to cheat without getting caught. It’s really just doping by another name,” Ruth I. Wood, the chair of integrative anatomical sciences at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, told Business Insider.
How microdosing steroids might work
Most performance-enhancing steroids are lab-produced variations on the male sex hormone testosterone. Testosterone-derived steroids are relatively inexpensive to buy, and because the body produces its own version naturally, they are generally harder to identify in a drug test.
In Pyeongchang, endurance athletes will be tested rigorously for steroids as well as a drug called EPO, which is designed to boost endurance and may also be used in microdoses, according to AFP. But testosterone microdoses may escape regulators’ radar because they only stay in the system for minutes or hours.
The current approach to testing for steroids involves taking both blood and urine samples to test for the presence of anabolic agents. Such tests can occur at any time and any location during the Olympics, including just after a competition, according to the US Anti-Doping Agency.
In its tests, WADA compares a ratio of two types of testosterone to determine if athletes have been doping. One type is regular testosterone, and the other is a precursor form called epitestosterone. Since the body produces roughly equal amounts of each naturally, most people have a ratio of one-to-one. Still, there is some natural variation, which is the reason WADA allows the testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio to reach up to four-to-one for Olympic athletes.
Because the most cheaply available and common steroids are based on testosterone, an athlete who injects would likely have a ratio closer to six-to-one or higher. But because WADA rules allow for a fairly generous ratio, athletes could still be using microdoses to top-up a larger, more chronic doping strategy. Some experts say athletes could even get a significant boost in muscle and strength by doping within the permitted ranges.
Microdosing isn’t easy
Wood believes athletes who microdose are likely to be taking chronic, higher doses of steroids – just enough to fall within the WADA limits – then using a microdose, perhaps in the form of a shot, just before an event.
Still, the practice of microdosing may be much trickier than athletes anticipate. Sprinter and Olympic silver medalist Lauryn Williams told the Daily Mail that in 2012, she was advised to microdose on testosterone by the same doctor who treated world champion Tyson Gay. But Gay tested positive for testosterone in 2013.
When compared with traditional doping schemes, microdosing requires more frequent dosing delivered at just the right time, according to the US Anti-Doping Agency. Because testing agencies are aware of the practice, they are increasingly aiming to develop more stringent means of detecting any foul play.
“If you take a small amount before a contest, that testosterone will have its effects but then it would dissipate by the time you’re asked to give a sample,” Wood said. “The goal of course is to get the benefits and not get caught.”