Road to the Olympics: Modern Cheaters
By Liam Jamieson
Women’s American 5,000- and 1,500-meter record holder and Olympic contender Shelby Houlihan is banned from competing for four years after testing positive for a steroid, and now Sha’Carri Richardson, America’s fastest woman, is benched for a month — and thus forced out of the Tokyo Games — for failing a drug test for marijuana. As an NCAA distance track runner and an avid fan, I was shocked by both developments. Wherever the blame lies, and however intentional or unintentional the offending acts, these cases remind us of the enduring presence of performance-enhancing and illegal substances in sports. Doping shreds public trust in athletics and in each affected sport — not just in countries known for concocting systematic doping measures, but right here in the United States. Even worse, offenders take money, fame and glory away from clean competitors. With the Olympics drawing near, today’s Daily Dose delves into the fight against dopers and the high-profile culprits and highlights how cutting-edge, controversial technologies are upending the sports world.
duping the dopers
CRISPR gene editing has been a controversial scientific find ever since it burst onto the scene in 2012. But what if athletes see it as the next frontier in doping? Scientists in Germany are already concerned by the possibility of athletes looking to change their DNA in the single-minded pursuit of success. “The possibility of misuse in sports cannot be ignored,” Mario Thevis of the German Sport University Cologne tells Laboratory Equipment. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has banned CRISPR-Cas9, an enzyme, due to its ability to change DNA. Meanwhile, Thevis and his team have set out to thwart would-be cheaters by testing how to identify gene doping in human plasma and mice.
It’s All in the Pee
Urine testing is far from new in the sports world, but a team of researchers at the Florida Institute of Technology have created a new method to detect doping that may leave juiced athletes biting their nails as the Tokyo Games approach. The testing will help officials detect known illicit substances more efficiently by distinguishing between endogenous (occurring naturally in the body) and exogenous (coming from an outside source) steroids. What’s more, it will also help detect illicit substances made in covert laboratories that have yet to be discovered by WADA by using machine learning methods to predict the likely structure and characteristics of new, unknown drugs.
The Tokyo Games will be the first time dried blood spot testing will be used in a major international sporting event, showing promise that the new method could become commonplace. Less intrusive for athletes, the test involves collecting a small sample of just a few blood droplets on a blotting paper, allowing officials to test for banned substances more precisely. Though the method has yet to fully replace urine and blood tests, experts hope that dried blood spot testing will grow more accurate as it is developed.
Retroactive Liquid Testing
A total of 139 athletes were disqualified from the London Olympics in 2012, but here’s the catch: Only 15 were caught and disqualified prior to or during the actual games. More than 120 were caught thanks to retroactive liquid testing. Making up for the time period between when a new performance enhancing substance emerges and WADA’s awareness of it, retroactive testing allows anti-doping agencies to test stored samples from the past using newer tests. Though they can’t go back in time and remove the athletes from the competition, officials hope that retroactive testing and disqualifications will deter athletes from taking illicit substances.
a porky problem
The Notorious Burrito
Until three weeks ago, Shelby Houlihan was a shoo-in not only to make the U.S. Olympic team, but also as a prime medal contender in Tokyo. Instead she’s now making global headlines for all the wrong reasons, having been issued a four-year competition ban after testing positive for the anabolic steroid nandrolone in December 2020. The 28-year-old claims she had eaten a burrito the previous night that had incidentally contained nandrolone, a substance that can be found in pig offal and a common contaminant that “makes up most of the positive tests that the Athletics Integrity Unit finds,” investigative reporter David Epstein told Slate.
With no races requiring in-competition testing and limits on anti-doping organizations’ testing initiatives due to local health regulations, some speculate that a pandemic-induced gap in testing may have provided a window for athletes to dope with little to no risk of getting caught. In April 2019, anti-doping organizations collected over 25,000 blood and urine samples from athletes. In April 2020? Only 578. “If someone wants to dope, what better chance than when people can’t test you for it,” Canadian professional runner and co-host of the Running Rivals podcast Rory Linkletter tells OZY. Studies have shown that even one cycle of performance enhancing drugs that leaves the body relatively quickly can bring benefits to an athlete for up to four years, so athletes who were doping during the testing lull may now be testing clean while still reaping the benefits during the Olympic Games and onward.
Doping Déjà Vu
The Houlihan episode isn’t the first time questionable meat has played a role in the doping ban of an American track athlete. In 2017, Ajee Wilson tested positive for the banned substance zeranol but escaped a ban after a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) investigation concluded it was highly likely that Wilson’s positive test was the result of contaminated meat. Similarly, long jumper Jarrion Lawson last year successfully fought a four-year ban after testing positive for trenbolone contracted from contaminated beef, after providing a credit card receipt and information showing that the restaurant’s beef supplier used the steroid.
The Trouble With Testing
Though Houlihan passed a hair follicle test indicating that she had not injected the steroid and a polygraph test saying she never knowingly took the substance, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) panel denied her appeal as she had failed to provide evidence that the burrito was the source of the nandrolone. This heightened sensitivity around doping tests has some experts concerned. “Maybe the process is broken,” Linkletter says. “That would really crush our spirits in trusting clean sport, and if that’s the case I feel horrible for Shelby.” He adds, however, “if you’re going to advocate for clean sport and someone fails a drug test, I think you have to support the results of the drug test.”
In an anonymous survey taken by 1,400 USADA-tested athletes, over half said they believe foreign competitors used the pandemic’s lull in testing as a doping opportunity, while only 30% said they suspect American athletes did so. Fueled by Russia’s state-sponsored doping scandal and with misconceptions of systematic doping in countries like Kenya, tones of xenophobia have emerged in Americans’ perceptions of who is doping and who isn’t. “We don’t want to believe that Americans are cheating; we want to believe that all other countries are cheating,” says Linkletter.
“I am human,” Richardson cryptically tweeted on Thursday. After blowing away the women’s 100-meter field at the U.S. Olympic trials last month, the sprinter was the starting favorite for gold in Tokyo. But after testing positive for marijuana and given a one-month suspension, she won’t be on the plane to Tokyo. Richardson says she consumed the substance to cope with the unexpected death of her biological mother. What’s more, she did so in Oregon, a state that has legalized recreational marijuana use. The ban has sparked a public outcry, calling into question why the substance is still banned in sport, with high-profile athletes coming out in support of Richardson and a petition to let her compete surpassing 550,000 signatures.
Salwa Eid Naser
Athletes can even face suspensions without testing positive for any banned substance. How, you ask? Just weeks before the start of the Tokyo Games, 400-meter star Salwa Eid Naser found herself slapped with a two-year ban for violating international anti-doping regulations. The 23-year-old Bahraini, who secured the 400-meter gold at the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha and stands as the country’s top women’s sprinter, was found guilty of three whereabouts failures by the CAS, a move it deemed “inexcusably irresponsible.” Though her world championship win, where she clocked the third-fastest 400-meter sprint in history, will remain, all of her results since November 25, 2019, will be disqualified. Her ban will last into early 2023.
Missing surprise drug tests is not taken lightly, which is why the world’s fastest man, American sprinter Christian Coleman, will be sitting out of the Tokyo Olympics, where he was the heavy favorite to take gold in the men’s 100-meter. Though doping officials do not suspect Coleman of using performance-enhancing drugs, the anti-doping watchdog Athletics Integrity Unit determined that Coleman had reported three whereabouts failures for anti-doping tests in a 12-month period, resulting in a two-year ban, which began in May 2020. It has since been reduced by six months.
Illegal substances aren’t the only sources of controversy. We first saw carbon-plated racing shoes break into the running scene in 2017, when the Kenyan marathon legend Eliud Kipchoge wore Nike’s first carbon-plated model, the Vaporfly. What ensued was an arms race between competing brands to come up with their own models. Now, the carbon plates, which help a runner retain energy, have moved from the roads to the track. “We’d be foolish to not acknowledge that they play a part in everything,” says Linkletter. Just as with marathons, track times have gotten faster across the board, and many credit the high-tech shoes, so much so that rival running shoe companies without carbon-plated spikes have even allowed their endorsed athletes to compete in the Nikes (with the swooshes covered).
When Ugandan Joshua Cheptegei went on his speedy tear last summer, toppling world records in both the 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter, a noticeable new feature on the track caught the world’s eye: Wavelight technology. While Cheptegei was running, the lights traveling around the inner rail of the track moved exactly at world record pace, clocking an even split for every lap. In the 10,000-meter race in August, the Ugandan stuck with the lights for the whole race, pushing past at the last lap to break the long-standing record by just over six seconds. Critics of Wavelight technology argue the lights provide an unfair advantage.
This is a legal high. No one is arguing that living at high altitude is dishonest, but it does offer an advantage. A University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center study explains how when endurance athletes acclimate to living and training at high altitude (a sweet spot of about 7,000 to 8,000 feet), they acquire more oxygen-carrying red blood cells, which give their muscles an extra boost of oxygen when competing at sea level. The practice has made places like Iten, Kenya, and St. Moritz, Switzerland, into destinations for endurance training. With the “live high — train low” theory, endurance athletes benefit from spending most of their day at a high altitude, then dropping down in elevation for more rigorous training sessions.
World Anti-Doping Agency rules and lists of banned substances are not without gray areas. IV drips are one way that athletes get legal vitamins and supplements into their systems more directly. But WADA has set the limit at 100 milliliters every 12 hours, violations of which have led to bans, including the one placed on U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte in 2018. “As long as the temptation is there and the stakes are so high, people are going to continue to try to find an unfair advantage,” Robert Herbst, a former Olympic drug-testing official, tells OZY.
- Liam Jamieson, OZY Author Contact Liam Jamieson