SI Vault
Gary Smith
September 18, 2000
Armed with new methods for detecting EPO, Graham Trout and his colleagues at Australia's Sports Drug Testing lab have Olympic cheaters in their crosshairs.
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September 18, 2000

Gotta Catch 'em All

Armed with new methods for detecting EPO, Graham Trout and his colleagues at Australia's Sports Drug Testing lab have Olympic cheaters in their crosshairs.

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You say there's blood at the front door? Wonderful! Invite it in! Why should anyone be allowed to reap the 2% to 3% performance boost—huge in events often decided by hundredths of seconds—that comes from the additional red blood cells produced by synthetic EPO? Or maybe we should just let the scoundrels take it, collect their medals and die from heart attack or stroke, the way some two dozen cyclists seem to have done.

Enough! Eight seconds is all we've scheduled for righteousness. It's time to trot out Trout's baby, the crowning achievement of his career: the tests that his team—Kerry Emslie, Chris Howe and Jill Rogerson—in conjunction with Dr. Peter Davis's team at the Australian Institute of Sport, devised to rid the world of EPO abuse. It's not a one-shot test, can't be that simple, because EPO is naturally found in the body. No, it's a series of tests detecting other things produced in the blood when there's an unnaturally high level of EPO, any one of which could provide a false positive but all of which, evaluated together, provide solid evidence of cheating.

Two-milliliter portions of each blood sample—send 'em down the hallway to the Bayer ADVIA machine, on the double. It'll tell us if there are too many fresh red blood cells or too high an overall percentage of red blood cells, two indicators of hanky-panky. To the Dade Behring machine with other portions of those samples! That will sniff out a suspiciously high number of soluble transferrin receptors, and you're nuts if you think we've got time to explain that.

Truth is, those tests alone kick out enough data for Trout to know, in 9,999 cases out of 10,000, whether he's caught a fraud red-handed, but do you think the IOC is going to risk a world-record lawsuit on that? Certainly not. So all he's allowed to assert is that he's found an "indicative" result, and now the accompanying urine sample of the athlete in question must be whisked through a test recently devised by a team of French scientists for confirmation. Trouble is, the French urine test can detect EPO only if it was taken in the previous three days, while the Aussie blood test can expose its use in the previous 20 days, meaning the flimflammers who got off the stuff only four days before giving blood will get away with it! And even those who knocked off a month earlier will have received some advantage. Sure, the IOC will quietly file away the names of those who failed the blood but passed the urine test and might do follow-up tests in an attempt to nab these cads later, but too late to take away their Olympic medals, too late to stop the coolest drug tester from grabbing what little hair he has and tearing it from his scalp.

All that was occurring in Trout's lab, but, heaven forbid, he would never describe it in that way. He collected a stack of gas chromatograms, the fingerprints that the HRMS computer was spitting out. He was a demon at scanning them, a speed-reader capable of absorbing 600 to 700 words a minute, and his eye for spotting a suspect compound, his memory of several hundred banned substances' fingerprints, deserved a standing O.

He would feel no glee if he detected a drug, nor any compassion for the athlete whose future now hung in the balance. Sometimes a positive finding was recorded so matter-of-factly that others in Trout's lab would learn of it only as they sat in front of their televisions a week later, when the news was released to the public. A positive indicator at this point in the process would mostly mean more work, more verification procedures while one green shoulder bag of urine after the next piled up at the door. Because now a full-scan confirmation would have to begin, check after check of the suspicious urine, with water sent through between retests to prevent cross-contamination, and urine blanks—control samples from someone in the lab whose urine was known to be clean—inserted as well to provide continual comparisons.

So it wasn't true, what many people thought about Trout's work: that it was a pour-pee-into-a-machine-and-wait-five-minutes-for-a-smoking-gun-printout process. Each of those rechecking cycles chewed up half an hour; the entire steroid scan swallowed three hours, not counting the time-devouring task of reading the three two-sided printout pages produced for each sample, and not counting the tests for diuretics, narcotics and stimulants occurring on other machines. If a positive were found by Trout, the athlete could demand that the entire procedure be redone on the B sample, with the athlete or his representative permitted to be present. But athletes haven't often stayed once they realized they would have to sit in the lab all day and night through the painstaking prep work and process.

Roughly 70 positive samples—one percent of the 7,000 examined—had been found by Trout's lab in 1999. But these were the Olympics, and yes, Trout would admit, he might experience a flutter of slightly greater magnitude than normal were a positive to show up now, especially if it came from the blood test that his lab had helped design. Exactly what would Trout feel if he were to discover, when the IOC matched the sample numbers to names, that he had nailed a gold medalist? Was he in this business because cheating angered him, because such dishonesty and disregard for the drugs' ruinous effects on an athlete's heart, liver, kidneys, sex organs and brain made him seethe? "It bothers me," Trout would say, "but no, it's not an issue I'd ever get up on a soapbox about. I don't like cheats. I like a level playing field. But anger is too strong a word."


Somewhere in the Village a young man pulls on his sweats: It's time. All the sickening lows, when injuries and defeats made him cry or want to quit, come back to him. All the intoxicating triumphs, when arenas roared for him and cameramen battled for space at his elbow, return too. The thing that has driven him to such extremes of pain and self-denial—that's there as well, so close he can almost touch it: the hurt over some loss in his life, the fear that he isn't worthy, the need for love or glory. All those feelings, all that fuel, swirl inside him now, as a bald, bony chemist steps out of his lab and....

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