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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Hold it. Where was Trout going with that empty bottle? The man with the large ears and impassive brown eyes approached the men's room. Who better to provide a control sample, the urine blank against which the Olympians' samples would be compared? Who but Trout, the perfect blank, a man who neither danced, sang, smoked or drank tea or coffee, a man who had never swallowed an alcoholic beverage until he was 28 and hadn't since, save for an occasional glass of wine. A chemist whose brain circuitry whirred so relentlessly that he sometimes awoke at night, worrying that his tests were not rigorous enough.

Imagine being a man who held that tight a grip on himself, his life and his work. Imagine being a man who, like Trout, flew single-engine planes and trained novice glider pilots for leisure, a man so methodical and adept that two years ago he landed a high-wing monoplane with a smoking instrument panel on a tarmac that would be lined with fire engines, ambulances and police cars. Imagine being the man whom all staffers in the AGAL building, environmental and forensic as well as sports chemists, summoned whenever the failure of a mass spectrometer baffled them—that rare man who felt neither dread nor rage constricting his throat when a frighteningly expensive and complex machine went dead on deadline. "If you understand what's occurring," Trout would say, "you have no fear."

Imagine being the man who would be called in from a dead sleep if such a crisis occurred during this Olympic fortnight, who would trace the instruments' functions backward, step by step, until he pinpointed the source of the glitch, then turn the task over to his most striking physical feature, his exceedingly delicate hands—why, they looked as if they belonged to a 21-year-old violinist! They would go where others feared to tread, pluck out a washer barely larger than a gnat's necklace, thread a screw never to be seen again if one of his fingers slipped.

Imagine being that sort of man, and every few weeks picking up the newspaper or turning on the news to learn of another athlete or attorney casting aspersions on the tests and the testers who had found drugs in a urine sample. Imagine how the testers' eyes rolled, how the right corner of Trout's lips lifted, when they gathered at the annual Anti-Doping Workshop in Cologne, Germany, and exchanged tales of the latest alibis.

Contamination! The spectrometer's injecting syringe, Your Honor! All it would take is one drop on it from a previous sample.... The syringe is washed six times with solvent between injections, sir. Dirty transfer! Who can guarantee that someone else's sample didn't mix with mine when it was being poured into so many test tubes? Dirty transfers do indeed occur, about once every two years—perhaps one in every 10,000 samples—in our lab. Would you care to calculate the mathematical probability that it occurred each of the three times that extracts from your sample tested positive, sir? A computer virus caused my false positive! Ohhhh. A virus that struck only when your sample was checked, three times, madam, but never when die urine blanks or water blanks or all the other athletes' samples were tested? Why, the stanozolo had to have been in the steak I ate the night before! For that to have occurred, an unknown agent of evil would have had to inject the steroid into the exact cut of meat you ate, just before you ate it; otherwise it would have already begun to metabolize and take a different form. My birth control pills! They increase the presence of nandrolone in a woman's urine only to a level of one to two nanograms per milliliter, madam. Not nearly enough to cause a positive. But I downed two six-packs of beer! That sent my testosterone over the top! Alcohol has virtually no effect on a man's testosterone level, sir. Foul play! Someone spiked my drink! Someone spiked my toothpaste! It was in my dietary supplement! It was in my Chinese herbs! Then, of course, there was the ever-popular combo-platter smoke screen, bunching three or four of the above in hopes of clouding the issue; never mind that each element of the smoke bomb was a virtual impossibility.

Trout had withstood such attacks on a witness stand. He had defended his lab against the lifted eyebrows and vague innuendos of a lawyer—and won. Poor barrister, matched against Captain Cool-Calm-and-Collected, a master of anticipating where a line of questioning was heading and waiting there with a bucket of cold logic.

But most sports cases never reached a court of law. Most hearings occurred in front of national sporting federations that brushed aside drug testers' evidence rather than bring down their countries' heroes, athletes often living on stipends from the very federations that were judging them. Ninety percent of IOC member nations didn't even conduct regular out-of-competition drug tests, the only true way to clean up the Games, a sorry and haphazard state of affairs that the IOC never seemed in a rush to fix, perhaps for fear that a new rash of drug busts would further tarnish its facade of purity and its inflow of corporate cash.

Until this year, supposedly. In theory the IOC's newly formed World Anti-Doping Agency would begin to change all that by conducting 2,500 out-of-competition drug tests before the Olympics and removing the question of guilt or innocence from the hands of national sporting federations. But the IOC's record on testing and enforcement is marked by what the White House report calls "persistent patterns of irregularities." Moreover, athletes in Sydney will not be tested for human growth hormone, insulin growth factor and products that essentially serve as artificial blood. Reviews were mixed over whether an organization that mysteriously lost nine positive findings reported by the Los Angeles drug lab at the 1984 Olympics, and chose not to pursue a series of positive steroid results at the 1996 Atlanta Games, was finally serious about fumigation.

And Trout? What side effects had such bureaucratic butchery, hypocritical hanky-panky and acrobatic alibiing had on his spleen? "Well," he would say, "it makes you think that what you're doing is less pointful. That we're spending a lot of time and money to find something, but when it's found, sometimes nothing happens. I get a little depressed about that."

Depressed, Trout? Yes, go on, elaborate: Disillusioned, maybe? Perhaps even...hurt? "No," said Trout. "It's the way of the world. That some athletes are taking drugs and should be stopped is important, but not as important as all the people in the world being bombed, killed, executed or ethnically cleansed. Let's call it a nagging frustration, but not go as far as to say it disillusions me."

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