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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.

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.

Answer: The key here would be "natural." Taking anabolic steroids is a case of too much of a good thing.

Wadler reels off a list of bad side effects. Besides the well-known "'roid rage," anabolic steroids can cause your body to stop its normal production of testosterone, the testes to shrink, sperm production to drop, breast tissue to develop, and the liver to become diseased -- to name a few unpleasant effects.

"Some effects are physical, some psychological. Some wear off, some don't," Wadler says. "And some show up later, after you quit taking steroids. You think you have gotten away with it and you haven't."

Question: Back to the dramatic turnaround in Landis's performance. How could this have even occurred from a slow-acting agent?

Answer: If it's determined steroids were used, "The irony may be," Hellman says, "that even if he did apply a patch, he won because of the placebo effect. He might have thought it gave him a big advantage. So he really was that good, but lost his medal anyway."

All of this, Hellman says, will probably end up in court.

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