Do Clean Athletes Have a Chance?

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Hiroko Masuike / Getty

Three-time Olympic gold medalist Marion Jones was found guilty of steriod use.

The Olympic Games are supposed to be a testament to human willpower and achievement. But they're also about competing for gold, and doing whatever it takes to come in first. At every Games in recent memory — and surely Beijing is no different — athletes have used illegal performance-enhancing drugs to win. Many have been caught; probably many more have not. Authorities say they have more than 4,500 anti-doping tests in place at the Beijing Games. So, with such a high possibility of their drug use being uncovered, cheating athletes would have to be certain it's worth it. TIME asked world-renowned anti-doping expert Werner Franke, a professor at the German Cancer Research Center, how well doping really works and what the chances are of getting caught.

Q:Can clean athletes ever compete against doped ones?

A: It varies from discipline to discipline, but in many disciplines they have no chance.

There is no question about this scientifically. We have a wealth of data concerning, for example, androgenic anabolic steroids. I was the one who discovered the top secret papers in East Germany that show how researchers during the Cold War had evaluated steroid use point-by-point, dose-by-dose, examining how much had to be given at which intervals to be most effective. There exists similar evidence in the West. For example, there's the Canadian inquiry, published by Judge Charles Dubin in 1990, which uncovered details of steroid use after Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson tested positive for steroids and was stripped of the gold medal he won in 1988.

We also have evidence from the actual performances themselves. Since some anti-doping controls have been introduced, the caliber of top performances in the world has already been reduced dramatically. For example, the world record in the women's 400 m, which was set in 1985 by Marita Koch, is 47.6 sec. These days, Olympic finalists would be happy to get below 50 sec. That's a 30-meter difference! [Editor's note: Koch has never publicly admitted to cheating.]

And this is still going on, as you can see from the doping controls. The controls are still inadequate, scientifically speaking, though they do find some positives. It's just that there is a wealth of bizarre, dirty, and painful tricks to cheat — and also to cheat the controllers.

The most famous trick at Athens was by a couple of medal winners, who had plastic bags filled other people's clean urine inserted into the rectum, and a plastic tube that was fixed and hung beneath the penis. So when the athletes gave urine tests, the urine did not come from the body, but instead from this plastic outlet. People did this for years and years — and still do. It was known about. Women would insert bags into their vaginas. Then in Athens, when some athletes were asked for a bit more urine to analyze in future years, the system became obvious. Their medals were taken away.

We know already from the last couple years that the spiral of doping has gone up again. We are now dealing with drugs that are not detected at all because no good test has been developed for them. That includes growth factors. The most frequently used is at present IGF-1, insulin-like growth factor 1, which is not detected in urine or even blood tests. There are also some variants of human erythropoietin (EPO) and growth factor that cannot be easily identified. And there are now very short-lived androgenic steroids. Short-lived means that, after a day and a half, they are no longer detectable in the urine. And there are lyophilized proteolytic enzymes, which can be added to the urine during a test as tiny amounts of powder so that growths factors, EPO and insulin are degraded and no longer detectable.

So controls are easily undercut. I don't take all this business about the 4,500 controls in place in Beijing seriously. It's silly. They'll catch only very stupid athletes. Most are guided by experts in sports medicine.