At the Olympics opening ceremony today, we’ll see a lot of excitement, a lot of patriotism, and a lot of hope. What we won’t see are a lot of Russian track athletes.
If you somehow missed the news that Russian athletes and government officials are embroiled in a doping scandal bigger than one of Bilyal Makhov’s thighs, here are a few quick facts.
Russian officials and coaches collaborated to conceal the results of multiple failed drug tests. Russian athletes were drug-tested in a Moscow laboratory, which then sent results to bureaucrats as high up as the Russian deputy minister for sport. Now, an unprecedented number of Russian competitors in athletics, rowing, weightlifting and canoeing have been banned from this year’s Olympics, and Olympics committees are still determining whether the ban should be extended to other events or athletes1,2.
This story is already the making of a Blockbuster conspiracy flick, but it gets even better when you learn about the actual drug cocktail—because in this case, it’s literally a cocktail.
The laboratory in Moscow developed a mixture of steroids that would boost performance but be hard to detect. Steroids increase muscle mass by binding to hormone receptors in the body, which then send messages to muscles to increase their size. (PSA: steroids have other, less desirable, effects. Please don’t take steroids.) This particular Moscow mixture included Oral Turinabol, Oxandrolone and Methasterone, all of which are excreted by the body relatively quickly compared to other steroids.
To further decrease chances of detection, the doctors in Moscow dissolved these drugs in alcohol. Male athletes were given whiskey, and female athletes, vermouth—because as long as your government is involved in a national doping conspiracy, might as well throw in a little sexism for kicks!
Steroids dissolve better in alcohol than in water, hence the literal cocktail. But why not just ingest the drugs as a pill or inject them, you know, like normal? This is where detection time comes in: athletes would swig the cocktail in their mouths before spitting it out. This allows the drug to be absorbed into the “buccal mucosa”, or the soft flesh of the cheeks. By not actually ingesting or injecting the drugs, the athletes get the same performance boost but have smaller residual amounts of steroids in easily tested bodily fluids (blood and urine).
So Russian athletes were given complementary mixed drinks by their government and they weren’t allowed to drink them? Man, and we think our bosses are tough.
If you’re like me, you might have found this story of government collusion to be both shocking and disillusioning. The good news is that the drugs are hard to detect but not impossible, and detection technology is getting better and better. We may not have a dope-free sporting event anytime soon, but both scientists and sporting administrations are hard at work trying to keep sporting fair and fun to watch.
By Alison Gilchrist