As the starter’s gun is loaded for the London Olympics, the head of the Swiss Laboratory for Doping Analyses is on his marks and ready to help analyse up to 400 athletes’ samples a day – an Olympic record.
The use of illegal drugs remains one of the main blots on the Olympic image. Athletes suspected of doping are being targeted by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) – both based in Lausanne – and will be tested at training camps before the Games, which run from July 27 to August 12.
Martial Saugy tells swissinfo.ch about biological passports, multidrug cocktails, hidden motors in bicycles – and whether scientists are winning the battle against doping athletes.
swissinfo.ch: Are you looking forward to the Olympic Games or do you just get depressed flagging up yet another positive sample?
Martial Saugy: I’m always excited before the Olympics, but after 20 years fighting doping my view on sport has changed a bit. But I love sport – doing it and watching it.
swissinfo.ch: What have been the main anti-doping developments since the Beijing Olympics in 2008?
M.S.: Right after Beijing we re-analysed several samples and detected Cera, one of these new EPOs [hormones that control red blood cell production], in about ten. Top athletes [including Rashid Ramzi, who won gold in the 1500m] were caught using this method.
Also, the test for human growth hormone is well in place. Since Beijing there have been several positive cases in which athletes admitted having taken human growth hormone – this gives a lot of credibility to the test if people admit it.
The other thing is the implementation of the biological passport. This is a good prevention and deterrence tool. Cycling introduced a haematological passport after Beijing and we’ve seen a significant decrease in manipulation among cyclists. We know that in London the IOC is in agreement with some of the endurance disciplines – cycling, track and field, rowing, triathlon, swimming – that tests will be made at the beginning of the Games and the various federations will be told if an athlete is OK to participate.
swissinfo.ch: What will be the athlete’s drug of choice in London?
M.S.: It’s difficult to say. There are currently several hormone-like substances on the market, which means you mimic the effect of EPO, say, or human growth hormone or you stimulate the production of your own testosterone. But we haven’t seen any serious sign of increased use of these substances. Unlike at Beijing, there doesn’t seem to be a brand new molecule on the market which we can say will be the molecule for the London Games.
We tend to categorise substances depending on the disciplines, but this isn’t as correct as it was in the past, when we said ‘OK, anabolic steroids for explosivity and strength – so for sprinters – and EPO and blood transfusions only for the endurance athletes’. We now know that testosterone is used by endurance athletes because it’s very good for recovery. Also, EPO can be very useful for a sprinter because it can be very good for hard training and recovery. These multidrug cocktails will be given in micro-dosages to shorten the detection window.
swissinfo.ch: How is your laboratory involved in the London Games?
M.S.: The drugs controls and tests are under the responsibility of the King’s College London Drug Control Centre (see box). The director of the laboratory, David Cowan, invited most European laboratories to send people to help. Six of my people will go and help with the analysis because there are many to be done in a short period of time.
After the opening of the Olympic Village, they will do the blood analysis which will be included in the biological passport of those federations implementing it. We will be involved in that. The biological passports of all those athletes will be examined and interpreted here.
swissinfo.ch: Who is winning the doping race: athletes or scientists?
M.S.: You never win – there’s no finish line. We’re always fighting at a higher level. The analytical procedures get more and more sophisticated in order to catch the cheats, who of course rapidly adapt to become even more sophisticated.
In the 1980s, athletes were taking tremendous dosages of steroids. I’d say it took the labs ten years to adapt and be able to catch all the cheats, like Ben Johnson. And then [the dopers] adapted and EPO came along. They had to adapt again when in 2000 the French laboratories discovered how to detect EPO in urine.
It’s always like that. It’s a never-ending fight. But my feeling is that with the application of a biological passport and its deterrent effect we’re closer than ten years ago. Regarding the application of technology, we’re basically neck and neck.
swissinfo.ch: What are the main arguments against legalising doping? Watching people high-jumping like fleas would be entertaining, wouldn’t it?
M.S.: Well, this is philosophical, and my philosophy is that I’m against a society which is based on fake performance in general. So I’m against using medication just to perform better – medication should be used to heal people.
If you accept that cyclists climbing a steep hill on the Tour de France or whatever can attach a small engine to their bicycle [an allegation made against and laughed off by Swiss cyclist Fabian Cancellara], this is exactly – exactly – the same as taking EPO.
swissinfo.ch: Doing what you do, do you become slightly cynical? For example, if someone shatters a world record, do you raise an eyebrow?
M.S.: As I’ve said, I love sport and I’ve tried not to become too cynical. Looking at the 100 metres records over time, some have been set by cheats, some haven’t. I saw Usain Bolt run 9.58 seconds [the current world record] in Berlin in 2009. For me, that was a normal evolution of an athlete who was very strong from the start.
So I don’t always say a new record is impossible. Of course I will sometimes have that reaction if someone comes from nowhere and has an abnormal evolutionary performance. In other cases I try to believe that the performance is clean.
swissinfo.ch: But ultimately it will never be possible to guarantee a clean Olympic games?
M.S.: 100 per cent clean is impossible because athletes are human and there will always be cheats. We’re trying to decrease [the percentage of cheats] to the minimum acceptable level – and I think we’re close to that.
The lab at King’s College London Drug Control Centre was accredited by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) following a two-year testing programme that examined the lab’s equipment, staff and procedures.
The King’s College lab last year dealt with more than 8,000 samples across 70 sports. It expects to handle more than 6,250 during the Olympics and Paralympics, which will be held from July 27-August 12 and August 29-September 9 respectively. About half the competing athletes and every medallist are set to be tested.
The laboratory is the size of seven tennis courts and will test as many as 400 samples a day during the Games – an Olympic record. It will run 24 hours a day.
More than 1,000 staff from the London organising committee will be involved in anti-doping efforts, with 150 scientists working at the lab. Some results will be available within 24 hours of the test.