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Catching the drugs cheats

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Martial Saugy will not be competing at the Beijing Olympics. But the former athlete will play a key role as head of the Swiss Laboratory for Doping Analyses (LAD) in Lausanne.

This content was published on July 24, 2008 - 14:46

The riots in Tibet and the earthquake in Sichuan province have meant that in the run-up to the Olympic Games in Beijing the spotlight has been on human rights and emergency aid – not on doping.

Nevertheless, several experts have expressed fears about the possibility of Chinese athletes resorting to doping in a bid to boost the reputation of the People's Republic by taking the gold medals at what, after all, will be their "home" Olympics.

Doping at the Olympics is by no means a new phenomenon. The issue first attracted world attention when Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was stripped of his Olympic 100-metre gold medal and world record at the 1988 Seoul Olympics as a result of steroid abuse.

Then there was the scandal at Athens 2004 involving Greek sprinters Katerina Thanou and Konstantinos Kenteris at Athens 2004, who claimed they had been involved in a motorcycle accident and so were unable to complete a drugs test – and were thus tested positive by default.

It is Martial Saugy's job to catch doping cheats. Yet, as he explained to swissinfo, he does not expect any underhand practices from the Chinese in Beijing.

swissinfo: Usain Bolt recently broke the 100-metre world record, improving his personal best by 31 hundredths of a second in the process. Is it possible to believe such a performance without suspecting drug use?

Martial Saugy: Bolt's improvement is frankly astonishing – and I say this as someone who also competed in track and field. The time he clocked is all the more incredible when you consider that the weather conditions were anything but ideal – there was standing water on the track surface.

In the fight against doping, we need to focus more on those rare performances and personal bests such as Bolt's. By means of target testing on specific athletes, for example.

swissinfo: Could the new 100-metre world record have set the tone for a spree of records at this summer's Olympics?

M.S.: Bolt breaking the record was a total surprise. I don't think we'll see many world records in Beijing.

swissinfo: Do you think any particular doping method will be particularly "en vogue" among athletes in Beijing?

M.S.: In Athens in 2004 everyone thought gene doping and gene therapy were going to be the next big thing. However, I don't think we're at the point yet where athletes would be willing to subject themselves to the risks involved.

I think it's much more likely that athletes will use "cocktails" of drugs, which not only have a direct performance-enhancing effect but also stimulate endogenous hormone release. Some athletes may already have come across such a recipe to improve their performance.

swissinfo: China is booming – and the country's pharmaceuticals sector is expanding too. What role do the Chinese play in the manufacture of ingredients used for doping?

M.S.: There have already been talks with the Chinese authorities and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) on this issue.

China is one of the leading manufacturers of basic products which are subsequently processed in other countries. This is confirmed not only in customs statistics but also by those people involved in the fight against doping and the illegal trade in doping products.

swissinfo: Will we see Chinese athletes coming from nowhere to win gold in Beijing – as happened at the 1993 World Athletics Championships in Stuttgart when the distance runners picked up eight medals?

M.S.: A number of experts and sports association representatives have said they fear such a scenario. The Chinese Athletics Association isn't exactly instilling confidence by holding their Olympic trials as late as the end of July either.

Personally, I don't think it'll turn out that way. What with the Chinese opening up to the global market, it would be bad publicity if their athletes were to dominate certain disciplines.

Of course, they want to be competitive. This is sport, after all. But I believe the situation is totally different from the Worlds in 1993.

swissinfo: You strongly advocate the Athletics Pass programme. What are its benefits?

M.S.: We are limited in the extent to which we can obtain direct proof of substance abuse. Above all, this is due to the narrow time frame in which doping can be reliably detected. Choosing the right moment to test is difficult.

The Athletics Pass is a record containing an athlete's long-term data. It enables quick detection whenever deviations in an athlete's profile arise, regardless of when tests are carried out. This makes it harder for the athlete to flirt on the boundary of what constitutes a negative or positive test result. Any athlete who decided to cheat would have to manipulate all the relevant parameters.

These include simple parameters such as hematocrit, hemoglobin, or your blood cell count, but also testosterone and growth hormones.

Human growth hormones – or HGHs for short – have a considerable parameter-influencing effect on the body because they influence a lot of the by-products of metabolism. The same applies to steroids. These by-products can provide telltale signs of doping in the same way they show up an illness.

swissinfo: The anti-doping movement always seems to be two or three steps behind when new doping products are introduced. What motivates you to fight this unequal war?

M.S.: I don't buy into the way society looks to cure everything with medicines. We mustn't start believing that the solutions to our everyday problems – whether in the workplace or in sport – come in pill form.

I'm a sports fan myself and I enjoy the odd glass of wine now and again on special occasions. But I don't take amphetamines to make me feel better in the morning and I wouldn't want my children to do feel they had to take something just to be able to play sport.

swissinfo-interview: Renat Künzi

Swiss Laboratory for Doping Analyses (LAD)

The Swiss Laboratory for Doping Analyses (LAD) in Lausanne is one of 34 WADA-accredited anti-doping labs.

Martial Saugy, head of the LAD, and his team of 20 staff analyse doping control samples ("A" and "B" samples) for banned substances and methods.

The Lausanne laboratory specialises in the detection of EPO, growth hormones, testosterone and blood doping.

A blood transfusion and growth hormone specialist will be representing LAD in Beijing as a lab expert.

Martial Saugy is a scientific consultant to the anti-doping commissions of a number of international sports federations such as Fifa and Uefa (football), the IAAF (athletics) and the UCI (cycling).

During Euro 2008, which took place in Switzerland and Austria in June, two players from each team underwent a drugs test after every match. All 124 samples were analysed in Lausanne.

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