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53 Chromatography — At the Heart of the Olympics


As the 2016 Olympic games get closer, the subject of doping in sport is again one of the main topics of discussion. The recent findings of the McLaren Investigation Report into state controlled doping in Russia show the industrial scale of cheating that some countries and athletes will go to for the chance to win a medal.


During the Olympics in Rio doping control was to take place in the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) accredited Brazilian Doping Control Laboratory. But weeks before the games the labs have lost their accreditation due to a non-conformity with the International Standards for Laboratories that WADA uses to endorse labs. While the exact reason is not known yet, it is to be hoped that the lab can regain its accreditation before the games begin.


Athletes who want to compete clean have to abide by the regulations that WADA puts in place. Every year the ‘prohibited’ list is published on the WADA site and it is an athlete’s responsibility to adhere to the regulations. The list includes: substances prohibited at all times, which includes hormones, masking agents and growth factors; substances prohibited in competition, including stimulants and cannabis; substances banned by a particular sport, for example, alcohol is banned in certain sports that involve shooting or driving.


WADA also has a list of methods that are prohibited which includes blood doping, tampering with a sample or urine substitution and genetic manipulation. With hundreds of chemicals on the list, lab testing is demanding, and with so much riding on the results, it is imperative that the labs and their equipment are up to the task.


Labs have to be accredited by WADA, with the standards required for competence and calibration strictly laid down and enforced, although the McLaren Report suggests this is not always true. Accredited labs can use their own methods and are required to carry out research to further the anti-doping fight and make sport fairer and cleaner.


The majority of the testing is carried out using chromatography, with both gas and liquid chromatographs used, depending on the substance under investigation. With so many different molecules to check for, mass spectrometry is now used as the detector of choice, giving a reliable and efficient identification and quantification of the chemicals in each sample.


GC-MS was the mainstay of anti-doping labs for many years, offering reliable and an easy to use methodology. But as the drugs of choice have got more complex, so have the testers and LC-MS offers the drug testers a better chance of catching the cheats, especially with its ability to identify metabolites of drugs in a sample.


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