Itll Be Really Hard to Test for Doping at the Rio Olympics

Preparing for the Olympics has always been a harrowing logistical accomplishment. But the lead-up to this summers Olympics in Rio is starting to look more grueling than a 3, 000 meter steeplechase: The event has been plagued by public health concerns aboutZika, delayed construction, and forcible evictions from the favelas near the Olympic sites, all exacerbated by Brazil’s deeper economic woes.

And now, the Games dont even have an anti-doping lab. Last Friday, the World Anti-Doping Agency announced that itwas suspending the accreditation of Rios Brazilian Doping Control Laboratory.

Right now, WADA is remaining mum about how exactlythe lab failed. But the suspension entails flying all ongoing analyses to a different lab while the Rio lab tries to un-suspend itself. And given that the Olympics start in less than six weeks, that really doesnt bode well for Rio.

That’s because testing is already an undertaking when the lab is in the same country as the games. Everyone goes on minimal sleep, says Don Catlin, the founder of the USs first WAD-Aaccredited laboratory at UCLA. Its very intense.

Generally, it goes like this: Every day, after every event, cases of samples arrived here the designated labpackages of tightly-sealed clear bottles of urine and blood from the athletes. The lab analyzes them fordrugs in the 10 class of banned substances, including anabolic steroids, growth factors, and meldonium.

If a vial of pis turns up positive, lab technicians will test a second vial from the same athlete with a more targeted methodgas or liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry. The authorities also get involved: The laboratory advises the International Olympic Committee, and the athlete visits the lab to watch the follow-up analysis( sometimes with a lawyer in tow ).

The IOC expects labs to turn samples into results within 48 hours, and usually within a day. Time sensitive samplesthats the biggest logistical challenge, says Doug Rollins, a former director of the Olympic anti-doping laboratory in Salt Lake City. The IOC needs to make sure the winnersdidnt win with some extra chemical oomph — before they award the medals.So lab techs work through the night operating bodily fluids in the machines; often, the samples get to the lab at two or three in the morning.

Now, try operating all of that through a laboratory halfway around the world. If Rios lab doesnt get onto act together in time, it might have to fly the samples( and the perhaps doped-up athletes) to a WAD-Aaccredited laboratory in a different country.

Thats actually happened more than once. In 2012, the UEFA soccer championships in Poland and Ukraine useda single laboratory in Warsaw. The morning after each match, samples went out on the first available flight, stored in temperature-logged coolers at 4 to 12 degrees Celsius.FIFA did something similar during the 2014 Football world cup, during another pause in the Rio labs accreditation.( Suspension isnt new for this particular labit was banned from doing a specific type of analysis in 2012, and had its accreditation revoked altogether the year after that .) A lab inLausanne, Switzerlandmanaged to test all the samples, but getting them there took about 38 hours.

If the Olympics organizers run this route, the size of the lab matters just as much as itsproximity. Alab in tell, Cuba, might not have the capacity to test all of the Olympics’ samples. That UEFA tournament had 367 players to test; the 2014 Football world cup had around 700. This Olympics will have more than 10,000.

So another option is for another WAD-Aaccredited lab to set up a temporary spacein Rio. Thats also been done beforeMontreals lab set up an outpost in Vancouver in 2010, and Catlin created a mini-UCLA laboratory in 2002 at Salt Lake City, bringing over more than 30 staffers and half his equipment. But that isn’t easy. As soon as you have to start taking equipment like mass spectrometers, Catlin says, youve got big problems.

Plus, the labs have staff to worry about. A properly-trained technician is hard to findthey need to be able to perform complex laboratory protocols over and over again. Thats why part of the $60 million Rio poured into its lab expansion went towards training 96 lab technicians.( When Roger Brauninger, a biosafety director at the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation, audits labs for WADA, he tells part of the process is interviewing all the technicians to make sure they know what theyre doing .)

At this point, its unclear how many of these options are on the table. The Olympics are just over a month away. WADA has given the Rio lab 21 days to appeal government decisions. And the lab claims itll be up and investigating samples again in July, after WADA makes a technological visit.

Still, Rollins says, if that doesn’t happen, its possible that they have a contingency plan, or that theyll pull off doing the testing somewhere else. Let’s just hope the lab leaves the stumbling to the athletes.

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