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At Olympics, drug testers and athletes will square off over doping

BEIJING — When some 11,000 athletes arrive in Beijing for the Summer Olympic Games in August, a few will be playing cat-and-mouse games to avoid random anti-drug tests.

The organizers of the Beijing Games say they'll test a record 4,500 athletes and operate 41 anti-doping stations at the Olympic Village and competition sites. Chaperones will ensure that athletes submit genuine blood and urine samples.

But drug testing is far from foolproof, and some athletes will get off the hook.

"You can still dope like mad, get the benefits, and go to the games and test clean," said Peter H. Sonksen, a British endocrinologist and developer of a test to detect usage of human growth hormone.

Sonksen praised Du Lijun, the head of China's Anti-Doping Agency, but said that tests aren't keeping up with the ways that athletes supercharge their bodies with drugs.

"The athletes are very good at discovering new performance-enhancing substances," he said. "They'll always be a running battle between the cheaters and the dope testers."

Testers have to know what they're looking for to catch those who juice.

"We have to be looking for a known substance before we can test for it," said Julian W. Chang, chief medical officer of Hong Kong's Olympic team. "You're looking at a spectrograph, and there's a spike over there, and you don't know what it is. Some of the spikes may not be drugs, or (athletes) could be taking stuff like Marion Jones took, that nobody knows."

Marion Jones, the American track star, was imprisoned in January for lying to U.S. prosecutors about her drug use and stripped of her five Olympic medals. Her name has been erased from record books.

"Marion Jones was tested something like 100 times. She was never caught," Chang said, adding that most doping athletes "will escape detection."

Controversy surrounds substances such as human growth hormone, which athletes inject to help speed recovery from intense workouts, build muscle and burn off body fat. Dope testers at the 2004 Athens Games and the 2006 Torino Winter Games caught no athletes using human growth hormone. Experts say tests have improved but are still only able to detect human growth hormone within a day or two of its use.

Athletes who dope are likely to have been using human growth hormone for months before the Olympics, however, cycling off the substance well before their arrival in Beijing, Sonksen said.

Added Chang: "If you get caught, it's because you are stupid or you are careless."

John Fahey, president of the World Anti-Doping Agency, told reporters in Australia late last month that the International Olympic Committee can freeze samples taken during the games for up to eight years for retesting.

That leaves open the possibility that tests developed in the future may be able to catch the newer substances that athletes use, now that anabolic steroids are easily detected. Chang said those substances include "insulin-like growth factors, clenbuterol and other peptide hormones that produce the same results like human growth hormone."

TIMELINE OF DOPING CASES

Dope testers repeatedly caught Chinese athletes in the 1990s and earlier this decade, although China's record has improved markedly. Here are some major cases:

  • 1994 — Eleven Chinese athletes, seven of them swimmers (three of them world champions), tested positive for steroids at the Asian Games in Hiroshima.
  • 1998 — Chinese swimmer Yuan Yuan was caught carrying large quantities of human growth hormone at Sydney's airport before the world swimming championships. Four other swimmers were caught doping, bringing to 38 the doping suspensions of swimmers and coaches during the decade.
  • 2000 — Four Chinese track and field stars were banned from games for two years for doping. Several were under coach Ma Junren, whose "Ma Family Army" of athletes turned in some stunning times. Ma was dropped as an Olympic coach.
  • 2000 — China suddenly dropped 40 athletes from its Olympic squad headed to the Sydney Summer Games, when 27 of them failed blood tests.
  • 2001 — Four major track and field stars were banned or punished.
  • 2003 — Weightlifter Shang Shichun was caught doping after winning three gold medals and breaking three world records in world championships.
  • 2005 — A drug raid at a track and field training school in Anshan, Liaoning province, turned up a refrigerator full of banned substances. Eight athletes tested positive.
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