The science of doping: What counts as doping and how is it detected

This week, Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky have been accused by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport select committee of “crossing an ethical line” around performance-enhancing drugs. The report stops short of saying Wiggins committed anti-doping violations, but it throws shade on the now-retired cyclist’s victory in the 2012 Tour de France. 

The science of doping: What counts as doping and how is it detected

What counts as doping, which substances are considered to be performance-enhancing drugs and what systems are in place to detect them? Here’s our primer on doping in sport.

What is doping?

In a nutshell, doping in sport involves athletes taking illegal substances to improve performance. Today, that can mean everything from steroids to oxygen-increasing blood transfusions, although the practice of taking drugs to increase performance is an ancient one – from Ancient Greek chariot racers to Scandinavian Berserkers drinking special herbal infusions before going into battle.

Of course, doping wasn’t banned in those days. It was only with the establishment of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) in 1928 that the sports federation took it upon itself to draw a line under doping. This developed in the 1960s, as the worlds of football and cycling introduced doping tests for world championships, followed by the Olympics.  After a drug scandal during the 1998 Tour de France, the independent World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was set up.

In modern terms, doping largely centres on anabolic steroids and stimulants. The UK Anti-Doping Agency has a handy run-down of banned substances, and explains that substances are banned “when they meet at least two of the three following criteria: they enhance performance, pose a threat to athlete health, or violate the spirit of sport.”


What substances do athletes use to dope?

Androgens and anabolic steroids: These drugs are designed to behave like testosterone and dihydrotestosterone, and lead to increased muscle growth and quicker recovery times, but also kidney damage, aggression and low sperm count in men.    

Stimulants: These can help athletes overcome fatigue, and make them more alert, but are also addictive and can lead to heart problems.

Blood doping: This can involve a number of different methods, from transfusions to the use of Erythropoietin (EPO), but it mainly involves increasing red blood cell mass, which lets the body transport more oxygen. This can increase stamina and performance, but can also lead to kidney and heart failure.

Diuretics: These force liquid out of the body and can be used to prevent detection of banned substances or help athletes lose weight – useful for fighters who want to squeeze into a certain weight category, for example.

Painkillers: Certain painkillers such as codeine are allowed, but stronger sedatives, such as morphine and oxycodone – which can be used to mask painful injuries – are banned.

These are just a few of the substances banned under doping rules, but the full list encompasses everything from beta-blockers to insulin. The IAAF has an extensive list of banned substances.

How is doping detected?

Doping is normally detected via urine tests, using mass spectrometry. This involves ionising the particles and analysing the arrangement of masses in a sample. If this matches with a known steroid or other illegal substance, then it can be flagged as doping. For EPO and other blood doping cases, blood samples are taken and analysed.

In 2009, WADA introduced a biological passport, to help catch otherwise undetectable doping methods such as blood transfusions. This involves monitoring the effects of the doping, rather than the substance itself. Certain stats about an athlete are recorded over time, and if there is a drastic change then authorities are alerted. This method has had its critics, with some claiming the system isn’t effective at detecting micro-dosing of illegal substances.     

Recent examples of doping in sport

Following an investigation by The Daily Telegraph, world 100m champion Justin Gatlin is being investigated by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), and by the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU), which was set up earlier in 2017 by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). Undercover reporters visited Gatlin’s training camp in Florida, posing as employees of a film production company. During conversations, Gatlin’s coach, Dennis Mitchell, is accused of “offering to supply and administer testosterone and human-growth hormone for an actor training for a film”.

These accusations come just a week after reports that Chris Froome allegedly failed a drugs test during the Vuelta a Espana.

Russia’s Olympic team was recently banned from the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea following an International Olympic Committee ruling. The rulling came as the result of a prolonged investigation into the “systemic manipulation of the anti-doping system in Russia”, and was the IOC’s most severe action yet to punish Russia for state-sanctioned doping; something the organisation called an “unprecedented attack on the integrity of the Olympic Games and sport”.

Russia has also been ordered to pay $15 million, while former minister of sport, Vitaly Mutko, and his then deputy, Yuri Nagornykh, have been barred from participation in any future Olympic games.

The IOC has, however, made a concession to “clean” Russian athletes. Those who were not involved in the widespread doping during the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 will be able to compete, but as individuals “from Russia”, under the Olympic flag. Instead of the Russian anthem, any gold Medals for these athletes will be awarded while the Olympic anthem plays.

A country’s performance in the Olympics is a well-known proxy for soft power, typified by the competition between Russia and the USA during the years of the Cold War. The IOC’s ruling isn’t the first time a country has been turned away from the games, but it is still comes as a major step from the committee against a country that has been lately crossing lines in geopolitics, as well as sport.

Russia has a long history of doping allegations, reaching back to the Soviet Union. One study of the 1980 Summer Olympics has gone so far as to say: “There is hardly a medal winner at the Moscow Games, certainly not a gold medal winner, who is not on one sort of drug or another: usually several kinds. The Moscow Games might as well have been called the Chemists’ Games.”


With the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, reports of doping largely stem back to whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov, director of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory at the time of the games. He spoke to the New York Times about an extensive replacement of athlete urine samples, which was followed in July 2016 by the WADA-commissioned McLaren Report – set up to investigate Rodchenkov’s allegations. It found evidence of systemic, state-sponsored subversions of drug testing processes.

Despite the concession to allow “clean” Russian athletes to compete as individuals, the response in Russia has been heated, to say the least. Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, said in a Facebook post that the ban was the latest in a long attempt from Western powers to denigrate Russian society. “They are always trying to put us down in everything – our way of life, our culture, our history and now our sport,” she wrote, as reported by the Guardian.

The hanging question now is whether Russian athletes should take part in the games as individuals, or collectively boycott the games altogether. Vladimir Putin has yet to speak out on the issue – and what he says should give the clearest indication yet of how Russia will respond to the ban.

Lead image: Shutterstock

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