Above: Image © NLshop, iStockphoto

The 2016 Olympic games in Brazil featured amazing athletes from around the world. At times, their athletic feats seemed impossible!

Unfortunately, not all athletes follow the rules. Some of them would not be able to perform as well as they do without using banned drugs. Some of these drugs can increase an athlete’s blood oxygen, which improves endurance. Other drugs, called steroids, give an athlete bigger muscles. Bigger muscles make an athlete stronger and more powerful.

Obviously, athletes who use banned drugs get a unfair advantage. Several athletes were banned from the 2016 Rio Olympics because they have been caught cheating. But how do officials know which athletes are cheating and which ones are “clean”?

With chemistry, of course! Here are a few examples of how the chemists are outsmarting the cheaters.

Did you know? Blood, urine, hair, saliva and sweat can all be tested to detect illegal drugs.

Drug by-products

One way to detect drug use by looks for the metabolites of the drugs. Metabolites are products created in the body through digestion and other processes. When a person digests a drug, their body sometimes metabolizes it into a new product.

So instead of looking for the drug itself, chemists can test for these products. For example, when the body metabolizes steroids, it often adds molecules called sulfo groups (SO3H). And when the body metabolizes THC, the active component of marijuana, it adds a carboxylic acid group to it (-COOH). So chemists look for metabolites with a SO3H or -COOH in an athlete’s blood, sweat, or urine, to see if they may have taken a banned drug.

Did you know? The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport oversees drug testing for all Canadian athletes. Blood and urine samples are sent to a lab accredited by the World Anti-Doping Agency for testing.

New blood products

Some athletes inject blood into themselves. This is called blood doping, and it allows the athletes to carry more oxygen in their blood. It can also be tricky to detect. How can you tell if the blood has been injected or the athlete just produced it naturally?

Looking for iron is one way chemists can detect injected blood. That’s because iron levels can increase after a blood injection.

More recently, chemists have started looking for plasticizers. Plasticizers are substances that make plastic flexible. They are used in the plastic bags that store blood. So if plasticizers are found in an athlete’s blood sample, the athlete may have been blood doping.

Did you know? Over 100 drugs are prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Agency. They include morphine, marijuana, and alcohol.

Testing techniques

Chemists testing for banned drugs often use gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS). For this method to work, the sample being tested has to be turned into a gas. However, some molecules have a very high boiling point. So it would take outrageously high temperatures to turn them into a gas!

To get around this problem, chemists will sometimes chemically bind the molecule they’re looking for to another molecule. This can be a way of lowering the molecule’s boiling point so it’s easier to convert it into a gas.

Another way of testing for performance-enhancing drugs is by using high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) along with mass spectrometry (MS).

HPLC is a method for separating liquids. The liquid being tested is pushed through a column that contains different chemicals.Compounds in the sample react with the chemicals in the column in different ways, causing them to move through the column at different speeds. This makes it possible to separate the different molecules present in the sample.

Once the molecules in the sample are separated, mass spectrometry can quickly identify them. This includes any molecules that provide evidence of banned drugs.

Did you know? Athletes have been using performance enhancing drugs since the 1800s! Back then, caffeine and cocaine were often used to boost performance.

Future testing

Athletes usually have to provide blood or urine samples. However, testing hair is becoming a popular way of detecting the use of banned drugs. As your hair grows, it tells a story about the food and other substances you may have consumed. So when an athlete consumes a drug, it can pass through the blood and into the membrane of the hair follicle.

However, it takes a few days before hair can grow long enough to be pulled from the head. That’s why this method can’t detect drugs that were consumed very recently.

Hair testing is still being researched. But it could turn out to be a good way of detecting banned drugs taken over a long period of time. Of course, it would only work on athletes with hair!

Cheaters never win

Cheaters can be very clever when it comes to hiding their use of banned performance-enhancing drugs! Fortunately, chemists are continuing to come up with new detection methods. At the Olympics, it’s the chemists who win!

Learn More!

About doping in sport:

About catching athletes who use banned drugs:

About scientific research on doping in sport:

Annual banned-substance review: analytical approaches in human sports drug testing (2016)
M. Thevis, T. Kuuranne, K. Walpurgis, H. Geyer & W. Schanzer, Drug Testing and Analysis 8

Blood doping: potential of blood and urine sampling to detect autologous transfusion (2014)
J. Segura & C. Lundby, British Journal of Sports Medicine 47

Performance enhancing drugs in sports: how chemists catch users (2011)
Journal of Chemical Education 88

An overview of present and future drug testing (2010)
D.M. Martin, The Journal of Drug Policy and Practice

Kelly Resmer

Kelly is a chemistry undergraduate laboratory instructor in Halifax.  She loves working with students in the lab, watching chemistry happen! She has a PhD in chemistry and is very interested in studying and learning about bacteria, the good and the bad ones! 

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