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Steroid Doping: Questions and Answers

Experts explain the tests athletes undergo to determine testosterone levels and other indications of performance-enhancing substances.

Steroid Abuse continued...

Question: Don't the tests tell the story?

Answer: Remember the 1:1 ratio between naturally occurring testosterone and epitestosterone? Landis apparently came up with a 4:1, or some even say 11:1, ratio in tests done after he won.

According to Hellman, adding synthetic testosterone shuts down the body's manufacture of both the natural products. So the ratio can soar as the synthetic steroid's level rockets past production of the natural epitestosterone. Landis says his test was off because he had been drinking the night before, was dehydrated, and had a lot of testosterone in his body naturally.

The Tests

Question: How accurate are the tests?

Answer: There are different levels of testing, Hellman says. "We are not being told, yet, what was done." First, there is the basic urine test. "This can be skewed by contaminants and cannot separate natural testosterone from synthetic," Hellman says. Second, there are radioimmunoassays. These are more accurate, because samples are purified, but they still cannot separate natural from synthetic. The third level, carbon isotope ratio mass spectrometry, can tell if synthetic testosterone is present. "Since most people don't live on yams and soy, this can pick out the difference between natural and synthetic," Hellman says.

"I would wonder which tests were done. There is also a chance the samples were not handled properly and could have been tampered with. Some labs are better than others. These tests are not that easy to do. You don't just pour something in a tube."

Question: Could alcohol have interfered?

Answer: Hellman says alcohol can alter tests, but perhaps not to this dramatic a degree. However, there is not a lot of scientific information on this. "I don't know too many scientists," Hellman says, "who spend time getting athletes drunk."

Question: Are new tests needed when the stakes are this high?

Answer: New techniques are being developed, Wadler says. Martial Saugy, of the Swiss Laboratory for Doping Analyses in Lausanne, has called for new testing methods and for WADA to act more speedily.

Effects of Steroid Abuse

Question: Why not take anabolic steroids? They are a substance naturally occurring in the body, after all.

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