Catching the drug cheats - Chemistry at the Olympics

Catching the drug cheats - Chemistry at the Olympics

How is chemistry used to catch drug cheats at the Olympics?

How do scientists check that athletes aren't cheating?

At GlaxoSmithKline's site in Harlow, UK, the equipment is being polished and prepared. The site is home to the anti-doping labs for this summer's Olympic and Paralympic games.

150 scientists will be working around the clock to test up to 400 blood and urine samples per day.

About half of the athletes competing this year will provide samples for testing, including all medallists.

Over the course of the games, scientists will analyse more than 6,200 samples for as many as 400 banned substances.

Scientist testing drugs_100891673

Scientists will analyse 6,200 samples over the course of the games

The toughest challenge is the rapid turnaround time. It should only take 24 hours for a negative test to be announced, which will show that an athlete isn't a drugs cheat.

Testing times

To avoid any mistakes all samples will be given a barcode. This means that the testing centre knows where each sample is and who is handling it.

Each sample is divided between sealed bottles labelled A and B. If the testing team gets a positive result from repeated tests on an A sample, the B bottle will be opened and analysed.

Athletes are allowed to witness the opening of sample B if they should wish. This means that no-one can interfere with the second sample.

Scientist with sample bottle_133498571

Samples are divided between two sealed bottles to prevent anyone tampering with them

Unopened B samples are kept frozen for up to eight years. They can be re-tested if the authorities develop a new testing technique or identify a new doping drug.

Most samples taken will be urine, but at least 1,000 will be blood. Urine is easier to test than blood, because it has higher concentrations of any drugs in it. Urine also has fewer proteins in than blood. Proteins make it harder to test for banned substances.

How do scientists test urine?

First, urine has to be cleaned. Can you imagine cleaning your wee?!

Luckily scientists use a machine to clean the urine, which traps the parts of the urine that the scientists want to test.

Scientists use a technique called liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS) to look for drugs. Different chemicals and drugs have different masses.


Different drugs have different masses. Scientists can detect a drug based on its mass.

Scientists use LC-MS to look for masses of drugs that are banned. If these masses show up, the athlete has probably been taking a banned drug.

Some drugs such as steroids, which make muscles grow, are hard to detect using LC-MS. Scientists use other kinds of tests to find out if these drugs are in an athlete's urine.

Adapted from an article that first appeared on Chemistry World with kind permission of the Royal Society of Chemistry. View the original article on Chemistry World.

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