Why should there be anabolic steroid testing in sports? After all, a swimmer taking steroids cannot endanger national security, as he or she does not have access to defense secrets. A group of bodybuilders on anabolic steroids are not a danger to the public, unless someone steals their creatine or whey protein!
Let us begin with a technical discussion of how drug tests work and how accurate they are. We will then discuss the countermeasures used by athletes to try to beat anabolic steroid testing.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF DRUG TESTS
The International Olympic Commission (IOC) carries out the most precise and accurate of all drug- testing programs. The IOC began drug testing at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. At first only tests for amphetamines and other related performance enhancing drugs were carried out. Anabolic steroids, as a group were added to the list of banned substances in 1973. The first Olympics in which tests for anabolic steroids, was carried out was the Montreal Olympics in 1976.
The most frequently used drug test for Anabolic steroid testing is urinalysis. The bodybuilder or other athlete is notified of the test after being awarded first, second or third place in a competition. Athletes who competed, but did not place in the top three, may also be chosen at random to be tested. The person must present himself/herself to the testing site immediately after the awards ceremony. The athlete is asked to urinate in the presence of an official to prevent sample tampering. The urine sample is divided into two samples: sample one is stored under close security, only to be used pending the outcome of tests on sample two. Sample two, the test sample, is then subjected to various forms of chemical analysis. One of the most commonly used tests is the gas chromatography procedure.
In this test a chromatograph converts the urine into gas, screening out traces of forbidden compounds. Under pressure the gas passes through very sensitive columns, which separate the various substances into easily detectable components. If metabolites (breakdown products) of anabolic steroids are detected, the next step is to use a device called a mass spectrometer to determine exactly which steroids are in the athlete’s sample.
Instead of using the gas chromatography method, a variation known as liquid chromatography may be used for anabolic steroid testing. Once again, specialized columns of chemicals are used. The liquid urine is exposed to these columns, and the various constituents of the urine climb the columns to different levels. Drug components can be separated by color and distance
This test was developed in the early seventies, and was considered at the time to be the end-all to drug use in sports. Because RIA involves the use of radioactive isotopes, the number of laboratories which can carry out this test are limited. For this procedure, radioactive isotopes and specific foreign substance antibodies are added to a urine sample. If no banned steroids are present, the antibodies and isotopes combine and can be filtered out of the solution. There would be no remaining radioactivity in the sample. In a positive sample, the antibodies do not combine with the isotopes, and radioactivity remains. The chromatography and mass spectrometer tests are considered the top of the line in anabolic steroid testing, and have replaced RIA tests.
TESTOSTERONE RATIO TESTING
In the past, male athletes who knew that competitors at a particular event were to be tested for steroids, would simply discontinue the use of the steroids well in advance of the competition. When they stopped anabolic steroid use, they substituted pure testosterone. The purpose was to maintain strength, size, and other performance gains.
Scientists and drug testers became aware of this countermeasure and in response they developed a counter-countermeasure. As testosterone is broken down, one of its breakdown products, epitestosterone, is produced. The normal ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone is 1:1. When an athlete takes artificial testosterone, the amount of testosterone in the urine is increased, but the amount of epitestosterone excreted does not change. Thus the ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone increases dramatically. If the athlete’s ratio exceeds 6:1, the athlete is disqualified. For example, one powerlifter was tested and his ratio was 100:1!
Not only is the ratio indicative of testosterone use by an athlete, it also reveals to the tester whether or not the individual was using high levels of anabolic steroids. When an athlete uses anabolic steroids, the body’s own testosterone levels are reduced dramatically. When the user stops taking steroids, the body’s own testosterone production resumes, to bring testosterone levels back to the pre-steroid state. In some cases, the athlete’s body over-produces testosterone, thus shifting the testosterone to epitestosterone ratio upwards, past the acceptable upper limit of 6:1.
From 1986 to 1988, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was tested 19 times for anabolic steroids at various competitions. Although he was using anabolic steroids throughout this period, all tests were negative. Even in 1988, Olympic athletes using steroids managed to pass sophisticated IOC anabolic steroid tests. More than 50 male athletes who competed in the Seoul Olympics were later found to have used anabolic steroids in the six months prior to the games. These results came to light after a more sophisticated testing procedure was carried out on 1100 urine samples (collected during the games), which had been stored.
The present detection capabilities for some steroids are in the .25 mg (nanogram) range. This means that the specific metabolites for a drug such as Deca-durabolin can be measured, even when they exist in a concentration of one quarter part per billion! In most cases the tests can detect steroid use for only as long as the steroid is exerting a physiological effect on the athlete’s system.
There are numerous factors that increase or decrease a bodybuilder’s chances of passing or failing an anabolic steroid test. These include:
The type of anabolic steroids used How long the individual was on the drugs The dosages used The purity of the steroids The type of steroid cycle followed The individual’s genetics
It’s because of these factors that bodybuilders and other athletes have developed a whole series of anabolic steroid test counter measures to be drug tests.