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Hi-tech tests to catch Olympics drug cheats at London 2012

By Matthew Knight, CNN
updated 6:59 AM EDT, Tue July 31, 2012
Ben Johnson streaks away from the field in the 100 meters final at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. The race, his victory and his subsequent disqualification for taking the banned steroid stanozolol was one of the most infamous episodes in Olympic history. Ben Johnson streaks away from the field in the 100 meters final at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. The race, his victory and his subsequent disqualification for taking the banned steroid stanozolol was one of the most infamous episodes in Olympic history.
The most infamous 100m race
New testing facilities
London laboratory
Anti-doping measures
Tainted legacy
  • London 2012 organizers enlist help of state-of-the-art laboratory for drug testing
  • Partnership with GlaxoSmithKline will see more than 6,000 blood and urine tests during Games
  • Head of World Anti-Doping Agency says drugs program in London is "very, very good"
  • "Fight continues with sophistication continuing on both sides," says WADA chief

(CNN) -- Some athletes will go to any lengths to get their hands on an Olympic gold medal. Marion Jones and Ben Johnson are just two examples of champions whose achievements have been scrubbed from the record books due to drug scandals.

But competitors who want to run the risk of taking performance-enhancing substances before or during this year's Summer Olympics will face the most sophisticated anti-doping operation in the history of the Games, according to London 2012 organizers.

More than 6,250 samples of blood and urine will be tested during both the Olympics and Paralympics -- four years ago in Beijing that figure was around 4,500 -- with around 150 scientists on duty around the clock.

For the first time in Olympics history, a private sponsor -- pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) -- will be aiding the effort, providing the facilities for the scientists to carry out their work.

The $30 million state-of-the-art laboratory in Harlow, Essex is a short distance from the Olympic Park in east London and is fully accredited by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

Catching Olympic drug cheats

"I think it's a significant involvement," WADA's director general David Howman told CNN.

"The laboratory will have everything it could possibly need in terms of equipment. If athletes go to London, they know if they are cheating they are likely to be caught."

Professor David Cowan, director of King's College London's Drug Control Center and chief scientist for the Games, is delighted that GSK is helping out.

"These laboratories are the most high-tech labs in the history of the Games, analyzing more samples than ever before," Cowan said.

With GSK's support, Cowan and his colleagues have been able to develop "super-fast, super-sensitive technologies" capable of detecting prohibited substances.

"Across the range of instrument in the lab, we reckon we can pick up things you haven't even thought of," Cowan said.

"I think we'll soon be away from the days where designer drugs beat the analyst. I'm hoping this will be the Games that actually prove that."

If they are not caught now they can be caught within the next eight years because samples can be re-analysed
David Howman, WADA chief

Howman says the list of banned substances runs to 10-15 pages, with hundreds of drugs currently prohibited.

"The fight continues and the sophistication continues on both sides. You find that athletes and those that advise athletes are more sophisticated in what they do than they were 10 years ago," he said.

But he says the London 2012 program is "very, very good," reiterating that drug-takers will be found out.

"If they are not caught now they can be caught within the next eight years because samples can be re-analyzed."

Things have moved on significantly since the Olympics' most infamous case of drug taking, he says.

"I don't think Ben Johnson would even get to London nowadays -- I think he would be picked up in advance, and many athletes now who think they can get there will be swept away by pre-Games testing," Howman said.

"There were 80-90 athletes who didn't go to Beijing because of pre-testing and I presume that the same sort of number might arise this time around."

After winning the 100 meters final in Seoul in 1988, a reporter asked the Canadian sprinter what was more precious: a world record or the gold medal? Johnson chose the latter.

"Why?" the reporter asked.

"Because it's something nobody can take away from you," he replied.

The message coming from London 2012 organizers this year is, "Yes we can, and we will."

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