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Drugs in sport: can science stop the cheats? | The Economist

Science has made it is easier and faster to detect athletes who dope. So why are illicit performance-enhancing drugs still rife in sport? Read more here:

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Over the years scientific progress has made it easier and faster to detect athletes who dope. But it’s also helped make it easier to dope. Few are caught. So what’s the real story behind doping in sport?

Science has always played catch-up to the ways athletes and coaches avoid detection of drugs in sport. For most of the history of anti-doping the focus was on trying to identify particular chemicals in urine. For as long as the Olympics have existed athletes have cheated. But it’s only since the International Olympic Committee started testing for doping in 1968 that the cheaters have been officially caught.

The game changed in 2004 with the introduction of a bio-bank allowing the storage and re-testing of athletes’ samples over an eight-year period. Then in 2009 came biological passports. Since then more than 200 athletes have been caught doping. But that’s not the full picture.

In an anonymous survey at the 2011 World Athletics Championships an astonishing 44% of athletes admitted to doping within the last year. But typically only 1-2% of samples test positive. And most doping has in fact been detected years after it happened. And had it not been for the admissions of two Russian whistleblowers and other intelligence many of those cases could still be unknown.

So why have biological passports not lived up to their promise as the way to stamp out doping? And what’s the alternative? There’s a scientist in the south of England who seems to have an answer.

Yannis Pitsiladis is on the Medical and Scientific Commission of the IOC, the International Olympic Committee. He’s spent more than a decade honing a new method to spot blood doping. It’s an approach that might eventually be used to test and help stamp out, doping of any kind.

Yannis plans to add thousands of biomarkers through genetic sequencing. There are around 21,000 genes in the body. Several hundred switch on when an athlete takes a blood-thickening drug or has a blood transfusion. And this changes the athlete’s genetic signature. By analysing these changes, which can be detected weeks, possibly even months later, Yannis can spot blood doping, the method used and even roughly when it took place. But the final stage of Yannis’s research could be the most challenging. It’ll be labour-intensive, and time-consuming, require access to a DNA sequencer and a supercomputer and it will cost an estimated £4m ($5.2m).

So far Yannis has secured over half a million pounds from sponsors and WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency. And a Chinese company has agreed to lend him a sequencer.

Yannis’s struggle to secure funding is typical of the wider challenge facing anti-doping researchers. What really struck us when we talked to Yannis wasn’t just the science it was this funding gap. Organisations that say that they want to rid sport of doping haven’t always put their money where their mouth is. So we’ve made another film to find out why and to untangle the politics around the world’s foremost anti-doping agency.

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The Economist offers authoritative insight and opinion on international news, politics, business, finance, science, technology and the connections between them.
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