LONDON (Reuters) - Untroubled access to elite Russian track and field athletes for unannounced random dope tests triggered suspicions among the testers that all might not be as it seemed.
The athletes were always ready for the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) anti-doping officials and always provided clean urine samples.
“There were no ‘no shows’,” one official told Reuters. “The Russians were always there.”
Suspecting that the results were too good to be true, the IAAF started storing Russian dope samples taken during competition throughout the 2007 season.
The upshot was a meticulous sting operation this year after which seven Russian women were informed that the urine they had supplied was clearly not theirs because the DNA did not match that in the stored samples. Five of them, including the world number one 800 and 1,500 meters runner Yelena Soboleva, had been bound for the Beijing Olympics.
A clear victory for the testers over the cheats, 20 years after the Ben Johnson doping scandal had revealed the extent of illicit doping in the central sport of the summer Olympics, was rightly trumpeted.
Then followed news after the Beijing Games that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would re-test blood samples for a new-generation erythropoietin (EPO) product known as CERA.
Developed to produce EPO, which increases the number of red oxygen-carrying blood cells, CERA’s advantage for unscrupulous athletes was to reduce the need for regular injections.
Fortunately the manufacturers, realising the dangers, contacted the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). A test was hastily devised and four Tour de France riders — Italians Leonardo Piepoli and Riccardo Ricco, German Stefan Schumacher and Austrian Bernhard Kohl — were caught when their samples were retested.
Cycling remained the frontline in the battle against the dopers.
Spaniards Manuel Beltran and Moises Duenas Nevado failed traditional EPO tests, prompting harsh words from International Cycling Union (UCI) president Pat McQuaid before the start of the Beijing Games.
“We have a problem in Spain,” he said. “It’s time Spanish authorities start to do something concrete. For years, they have not been tough enough on doping and this is the result of their leniency.”
Several international federations had problems with Greece.
Fani Halkia, who hurtled from previous obscurity to win the women’s 400 metres hurdles at the 2004 Athens Games, confirmed what the sceptics had always thought when she tested positive for a steroid. Positive tests were recorded in Greek boxing, weightlifting, swimming and rowing as well as athletics.
Overall, even the optimists could concede only that the best the anti-doping authorities could claim in 2008 was a hard-fought draw.
At the start of the year former New South Wales Premier John Fahey took over from Dick Pound as head of WADA. Calling the fight against doping “one of the defining challenges of our age,” Fahey said the “tentacles of doping” had seeped deep into society.
Just how deep was revealed as the year proceeded.
Marion Jones spent the Beijing Games in jail after her five 2000 Sydney medals had been taken away for admitted drug use.
Her former coach Trevor Graham was sentenced to a year’s house arrest and her former partner Tim Montgomery, jailed for his part in a money-laundering scheme and heroin charges, confessed he had taken drugs before the Sydney Games.
Montgomery was a member of the U.S. 4x100 metres relay gold-medal winning squad in Sydney. Another of Graham’s former athletes Antonio Pettigrew admitted in court to using drugs before Sydney. He was the fourth sprinter in the 2000 4x400 relay squad to commit a doping violation and as a result the IOC finally decided to take away the Americans’ gold medal.
Britain’s former European 100 metres champion Dwain Chambers, who had tested positive for the designer steroid THG, sold by the BALCO laboratory which also supplied Jones and Montgomery, fought a losing court battle against a British ban from Beijing.
Disturbingly, Chambers admitted he could still be taking drugs if he had not been caught. Just as worrying was the revelation that of the seven drugs he had been taking at the same time, one was not even on the banned list.
Scientists concluded that the substance liothyronine could stimulate oxygen consumption.
The new year will bring no immediate respite from the BALCO scandal, even though the laboratory has long since closed down.
On March 2, slugger Barry Bonds, holder of Major League Baseball’s (MLB) all-time record for home runs and a BALCO client, will go on trial on charges of lying about alleged steroid use, after pleading not guilty.
Editing by Clare Fallon