Not much. There's a saying that to be a great athlete today you need a great coach, a great chemist and a great lawyer. The so-called chemists—who in fact are just as likely to be trainers, doctors or simply self-taught drug experts—are known in the athletic community as gurus. They specialize in buying illicit performance-boosting substances and creating programs that will give a client maximum benefit from those substances while minimizing his chances of getting caught. "No athlete I've ever helped has tested positive, and I've helped hundreds," says a Dutch doctor who has been a guru. The athletes he has helped, the guru-doctor says, come from "every sport you can imagine."
Gurus often buy or create so-called designer steroids for athletes who can afford the price of a program (as much as $3,000 a month). These drugs are steroids that have been chemically altered to tailor them to an athlete's needs and render them more difficult for testers to identify. Each type of steroid has a unique signature that shows up in the urine of a user. Because drug testers look only for the signatures of commercially available steroids, a steroid whose signature has been changed will be much more difficult to detect. For an athlete using that altered steroid, passing a drug test becomes a breeze.
Even an athlete with little money can have his steroids doctored. Despite the many polysyllabic terms bandied about in the steroid culture, the chemical components of steroids are so simple to alter that virtually any graduate student in chemistry has the ability to do it. SI took one guru's steroid-altering instructions to a third-year college chemistry student, who in the course of two days made the resultant designer drug. An independent testing lab, which analyzed the altered drug, said that its testers would be unable to find any identifiable trace of steroids in the urine of any person who had taken the designer drug.
Drug gurus are so easily found that an SI writer tracked down three of them—one in Houston, another in Kingston, Jamaica, and a third in Denver—by making a half-dozen telephone calls over the course of a week. The guru in Houston, a chemist who once worked for a pharmaceutical company, did not want the writer to visit him. "There are too many people here you'd recognize," he said.
To procure drugs, American gurus go to local doctors, to pharmacies in Tijuana, to dealers hanging out at bodybuilding gyms all over the U.S., to track and field meets in Europe.
The gurus do all their business in cash; the cash is provided by the athletes. A guru who is a doctor risks losing his license by providing an athlete with any performance-enhancing substance, such as an anabolic steroid, that by law can only be prescribed for bona fide medical needs. But the doctor has incentives. A kilogram of pure testosterone wholesales for $500 through medical channels. It can be mixed with calcium, made into tablets and produce about $100,000 in illicit steroid sales, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. (An athlete caught possessing steroids without a prescription could likewise face a felony rap, but that's just another risk many athletes are more than willing to take.)
After the guru buys and perhaps alters a drug, his next job is to make sure it is administered properly—that is, in a way that will enhance performance without being detected. The trick is for the athlete to receive just the right dosage at just the right time.
The guru might tell a sprinter, "You should take 40 milligrams of Winstrol [a steroid] three times a week for eight weeks, then take nothing for eight weeks, then resume your schedule for six weeks until three weeks before your competition." One of the guru's most important roles is to hold the athlete back; athletes, like junkies or alcoholics, often take the view that if a little is good, more is better.
Actually, for sprinters and other strength athletes, the most popular banned substance today is human growth hormone, not steroids. (Some athletes jokingly referred to the Atlanta Olympics as the Growth Hormone Games.) Growth hormone is used primarily by pediatricians to treat dwarfism, but it also helps an athlete's muscles recover speedily from intense workouts and thereby enables him or her to train harder and more often. Urine tests don't detect hGH, which is one reason so many athletes are taking injections of it despite the $1,500-a-month cost.
While growth hormone is popular among strength athletes, competitors who rely on endurance—long-distance runners, cross-country skiers, distance swimmers and the like—prefer a genetically engineered version of erythropoietin, or EPO, a natural hormone that is effective in the treatment of kidney disease, anemia and other disorders. It stimulates the formation of red blood cells, which carry oxygen to the muscles, thus fostering greater endurance for athletes. Urine testing cannot detect EPO use. And though more than two dozen deaths have been attributed to EPO—including the deaths of five Dutch cyclists in 1987, the year the drug was introduced in Europe—its popularity among athletes persists. "You have guys who will go to the funeral of a friend who died from this stuff, come home and inject it again," says an Olympic distance runner from Europe who uses EPO himself. There is an ongoing effort to find urine tests for both EPO and hGH, so far to no avail.