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Team TFS
Team TFS
shutterstock_377311462Peak sporting season is upon us especially as world athletes prepare to compete in Rio in August for the 2016 Summer Olympics.  Steroids are often at the center of the rise and fall of some of the most promising names in sports.  They entered the sporting world in the 1970s, and were later added in the 1980s to the sport anti-doping effort. While, US major league baseball remains the most prominent sport where athletes have been shamed for their use of performance enhancing drugs, many other sports continue to fall victim to negative press and increased scrutiny that accompanies the outing of a steroid user.

What are athletes partaking and why?

Anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS) aka anabolic steroids aka steroids are drugs that can produce effects similar to testosterone in the human body.  When in use, athletes can generally train harder, build more muscle more rapidly, enabling them to gain an edge in performance overall.  Beyond reducing fatigue and enabling athletes to train for hours, steroids also act as a buffer to lactic acid which causes muscle pain during physical exertions, and contain hormones to boost quicker recovery from injuries.  Because anabolic steroids can increase endurance levels multiple times, most athletes find it easier to run faster and improve their performance in sports using these drugs.

How are athletes tested for steroids?

In most cases, athletes are randomly tested during their sporting season or screened in competition during major sporting events for a known identified list of prohibited substances. An accredited laboratory may use a combination of gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GCMS) and liquid chromatography mass spectrometry (LCMS)  to accurately quantify the presence of natural and synthetic compounds by measuring the presence of testosterone (T) and another hormone called epitestosterone (E), a natural product of steroid metabolism that provides no benefit.

For most, the T/E ratio is about a 1-to-1 ratio. But since research scientists have demonstrated a natural variation can occur, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) set their T/E standardized test ratio limit at 4-to-1. If a test goes above that, it is deemed suspicious, and testing for synthetic testosterone ensues.

For athletes testing above the allowable limit set by WADA, a carbon isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS) test is used to examine the atomic make-up of testosterone in the athlete’s urine to determine if it is natural (endogenous) or synthetic (exogenous).

Why is it so complicated to detect?

For most athletes, an elevated T/E ratio will quickly return to normal, even as the benefits of the drug are just beginning, which makes detection complex.  In a recent article Speed Bumps: Why It’s So Hard to Catch Cheaters in Track and Field, by David Epstein, Christiane Ayotte, director of the WADA-accredited lab in Montreal, talks about athletes slipping through the random T/E screening process.  He notes she once said that she “cannot retire until we’ve found a better probe.”

This is one reason WADA introduced the steroidal module of the Athlete Biological Passport (ABP) testing in late 2013 –  to test athletes repeatedly and, ideally, outside of competition without advance notice.  Athletes would be monitored throughout their career to formulate their longitudinal profile.  However this is generally reserved for upcoming elite athletes to be baselined at over the course of the career.

Despite new testing methodology, as Epstein notes in his article, athletes focused on cheating will continue to try to find a way. He noted, “Some have added epitestosterone to the testosterone they take to keep their ratio within allowable limits. That was what made ’the cream’ of BALCO-scandal fame so difficult to detect.”

For reasons like this, experts in the field of sport doping like Dr. Mario Thevis, a forensic chemist at the Center for Preventive Doping Research at the German Sport University, Cologne, review and report new scientific approaches to advance athlete testing procedures in the Annual banned-substance review: analytical approaches in human sports drug testing.  Like Christiane Ayotte, they hope to catch the cheaters while lowering the high cost of testing.


Learn more

Winning the Sports Drug Arms Race

Inside Rio's 24-hour Anti-doping Lab 


Key publications

Anti-doping analyses at the Sochi Olympic and Paralympic Games 2014

Tim Sobolevsky, Grigory Krotov, Marina Dikunets, Maria Nikitina, Elena Mochalova and Grigory Rodchenkov

Drug Test. Analysis (2014)


GC-C-IRMS in routine doping control practice: 3 years of drug testing data, quality control and evol...

Polet M, Van Eenoo P

Anal Bioanal Chem. 2015 Jun;407(15):4397-409. doi: 10.1007/s00216-014-8374-7. Epub 2014 Dec 12.


Development of a GC/C/IRMS method – Confirmation of a novel steroid profiling approach in doping con...

Pieter Van Renterghem, Michael Polet, Lance Brooker, Wim Van Gansbeke, Peter Van Eenoo

Steroids 77 (2012) 1050–1060