Doping at the Olympics: why the cheats won’t win

By Tony Moffat, Emeritus Professor, UCL School of Pharmacy

“If you cheat, you will be caught” is the message to all the competitors in the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. There will be a total of over 6,000 samples tested during the games which includes samples from all the medallists and samples from about half of all of the competitors. So, if a competitor takes a drug that puts them in a medal position in their event, they will be found out, disqualified and will have their medal taken away. This is to counter doping in sport – the use of artificial enhancements to gain advantage over others in competition which is fundamentally contrary to the spirit of sport.

I first became involved in anti-doping in the 1960s when many sporting bodies insisted that doping did not happen in their sport. Analysing samples from the cyclists in the Tour of Britain Cycle Race during that period proved that doping did occur and four cyclists were disqualified during the first three years that we tested them. We have come a long way since then.

The anti-doping procedures during these Games are the most sophisticated and comprehensive ever. The Drug Control Centre, which is responsible for the analysis of the samples, is being run by GSK and King’s College London in Harlow and is the most high-tech laboratory in the history of the Games. I was luckily enough to visit the site a few weeks ago and was immensely impressed by the analytical equipment and computing interfaces that they had. Having a secure chain of custody for the samples ensures that they reported results come from the sample analysed. It is only one of 35 laboratories in the world capable of carrying out such analysis and accredited by the World Anti-Doping Agency. The laboratory will operate 24 hours a day for the period of the games, analysing about 400 samples a day with 150 trained scientists working there in shifts. All samples will be reported to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) within 24 hours of its receipt and they would take any necessary action after receiving any positive results – those containing a prohibited substance.

There are 1,000 of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) staff who will be taking the samples from athletes under secure conditions. Their job is to ensure that samples come from the competitor named on the sample’s label, they are not contaminated in any way and reach the laboratory in a secure manner. Samples will be stored for three months in the laboratory in case any retrospective analysis and action need to be taken. I well remember being a sampling officer for such events as the World Cup 1966 and British Amateur Weight Lifting Championships when a professional approach to the players and contestants was very easy as they wanted to show that doping did not take place in their sport.

Special pharmacies have been set up to dispense medicines and give advice during the games. Also the use of the London 2012 Pharmacy Guide should assist healthcare professionals who will be prescribing these medicines to choose the right medicine for their competitors. The RPS Olympics hub-page also provides support for pharmacists during Games time.

Let us hope that these Games are the cleanest ever and that there are few athletes who try to improve their performance by doping.