By Jessica Scott
Congratulations! After much contemplation and vicarious living through the athletes on TV, you’ve decided to try out for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Because your only recent feat of athleticism was when you hung up a shirt really fast while pretending to be part of the Olympic Laundry Folding Team, you have a lot of catching up to do. However, you’re not sure how committed you’ll really be to the training schedule of an Olympic athlete. Not to worry! The age-old tradition of doping can turn you into an athlete without all that time and energy.*
There is one tiny hiccup in this plan, which is that athletes at professional competitions are subject to random drug screening. At the Olympics, for instance, you may be tested at any time, and you must provide a schedule of your whereabouts at any given moment so they always know where to find you for such tests. Compounding this difficulty, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) makes it their business to figure out what drugs the cool kids are taking and tests for all of them – stimulants, hormones, steroids, glucocorticoids, you name it. WADA accredited labs must be able to perform a wide range of analytic tests on blood, urine, or saliva samples. Does this present a problem to you as an aspiring but lazy athlete?
Of course not! Just follow this handy-dandy guide to avoiding doping charges.
- Get into the chem lab. They can’t catch you if you use a compound they’re not testing for yet. One time-honored tradition among unscrupulous athletes and coaches is to find and use steroids that aren’t on the testing panel yet. Steroids work by activating Androgen Receptor (AR), and it turns out AR isn’t picky – there are hundreds of different kinds of steroids and AR will respond to a pretty good portion of ‘em. Do be aware that WADA may soon be able to foil cheaters like you. A new steroid detection method simply tests whether or not AR has been activated, meaning WADA doesn’t have to try to figure out which steroids are hip on the streets; one test could cover a multitude of drugs.
- Don’t do drugs – inject yourself with your own blood. Instead of using traditional drugs, like steroids, many athletes are “blood doping.” The old-fashioned way to do this is to remove one’s own blood only to re-transfuse it in time for competition. The more elegant method (and Lance Armstrong’s preferred cheating tactic) is to take erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone that increases red blood cell production in the body. Unfortunately, this method can be hit-or-miss for the aspiring doper. Although EPO is only detectable for a few days in the bloodstream and eliminates the need to smuggle bags of blood into the Olympics, WADA is beginning to implement Athlete Biological Passports. Among other things, biological passports would establish a normal red blood cell count for an individual athlete, and an unusually high red blood cell count might raise a red flag (haha). If you do use this method, we here at Science ACEs** recommend using leeches to remove large portions of your blood right after you compete just in case you get called for testing.
- Try microdosing. Microdosing is all the rage among top athletes. Basically, athletes will use drugs in small enough doses that they don’t hit the threshold for a positive test. Perhaps you already play the same game with alcohol and DUIs (you’ll have to stop that; Olympic athletes tend not to have beer bellies). Obviously, you’ll want to microdose with hormones or steroids that are already present in the human body – testosterone is a particularly popular one. This way, the WADA won’t be sure if you’re actually doping or just naturally producing close to the legal threshold for performance enhancing drugs, which brings me to…
- Get a genetic test. Okay, this one requires a little explanation. When labs test for testosterone, they’re really measuring the ratio between two chemicals: testosterone glucuronide (TG) and epitestosterone glucuronide (EG). TG is a byproduct of testosterone, and EG is a byproduct of epitestosterone, testosterone’s inactive cousin. Normally, the TG to EG, or T/E, ratio in the human body is somewhere around 1:1. Athletes who inject testosterone will end up with a higher-than-normal T/E ratio. However, certain people are genetically predisposed to have a lower ratio in the first place. A gene called UGT2B17 controls testosterone metabolism. Depending on your parents, you may have one, two, or zero working copies of this gene. If you have zero working copies, your body can have high levels of testosterone without the resulting high levels of TG. If you have two working copies, your body will have a naturally high T/E ratio. The WADA sets a ratio of 4:1 as the threshold to accommodate for these scenarios.
Naturally, this list is just a starting point for evading detection as you bend the definitions of “sportsmanship” and “integrity.” As you get further into the world of athletics, you may come across more straightforward but less interesting methods such as hiding fake urine on your person, bribery, and threatening whistleblowers.
And if you decide to go completely drug-free and compete on your own merit, you might need to worry about drug testing anyway. Due to natural variations in the human body, no drug test can completely eliminate false positives. If you take certain prescriptions, make sure you carry a doctor’s note. Remember how you can get lucky with two nonfunctional copies of UGT2B17? Well, you can also get unlucky with two working copies. Up to 5% of people may have natural T/E ratios that exceed the 4:1 threshold that the WADA considers positive for doping. Due to the poor regulation of nutritional supplements, it’s even possible to unintentionally take performance-enhancing drugs! Long story short, guys, keep yourselves educated about drug testing procedures. It’s all that stands between you and Olympic glory.
*I assume that is how this works.
**Science ACEs does not endorse the use of leeches. Or drugs. This is just me.
Jessica Scott (Editor)
Jess is a fifth year biology PhD student who studies the liver and its regenerative capabilities. In her admittedly limited free time, she enjoys traveling, writing, and being outdoors.