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Detective work against doping

Every smallest molecule - no matter how tiny it is - split into all its constituent parts: nowadays this is possible, thanks to modern analysis methods. This technology is particularly useful for doping investigators in professional sports, in order to search for banned substances.

A man in a laboratory.
© Jennifer Ruske

Chemist Jürgen Grotemeyer prepares the samples for analysis in the mass spectrometer. This enables the detection of chemical abnormalities in blood, urine and hair.

Jürgen Grotemeyer only rarely watches sports on television any more. Through his work, the Professor of Physical Chemistry at Kiel University has already experienced far too much abuse of performance-enhancing substances, analysed them himself, or heard about abuse from other specialist colleagues, for him to enjoy watching sporting events any more.

»At the back of my mind, I always question whether the great performances with which sportsmen and sportswomen, clubs or countries earn a huge amount of money, have really only been achieved as a result of training,« he said. »Because doping is very widespread in professional sports.« And this is not a recent development. Such manipulations have been around for centuries, with Grotemeyer quoting a case from the year 1812. At that time, a horse owner ensured that his animal would win, by injecting all the other competitors with a substance to weaken them before the race. »The doping was discovered because all the other horses became sick. The man was hanged for this crime.«

In those days, it was pure coincidence that manipulation like this was discovered, but today doping can no longer be hidden due to high-tech testing methods and the accuracy of blood, urine or hair analysis. »However, it takes a lot of time, patience and money to find even the smallest deviations from the norm,« said Grotemeyer. »And it often requires a nose for detective work.«

The reason for this is the complexity of the chemical compounds in our bodies. If someone eats chocolate, for example, its ingredients, which include approximately 250 flavouring agents, travel through our entire organism, through the stomach, intestine and all cells. This results in chemical reactions and changes, for example when sugar is converted into energy.

Even the tiniest quantities, such as 1 picogram (1pg, 1 trillionth of a gram = 10-12 g) and smaller can be detected and investigated by experts using a mass spectrometer, said Grotemeyer, to explain a very complex procedure in simple terms. Complex because even one urine sample contains at least 3,600 different compounds. »And this is just the lowest limit,« said Grotemeyer. »We currently know of around 30 million compounds in chemistry, and more are being discovered every day.«

»Doping is very widespread in professional sports.«

Jürgen Grotemeyer

These huge numbers also illustrate how difficult it is for chemists to discover irregularities within the short time period stipulated. »You are simply overwhelmed by the sheer amount,« said Grotemeyer. In the past, »Inspector Luck and Sergeant Chance« often played a role, such as in the case of the wine scandal around 30 years ago, in which a chemistry student stumbled upon raised values and investigated in more detail. »He discovered that the winemakers had added antifreeze to the wine.«

For Grotemeyer, regular monitoring of professional athletes makes sense, because the comparative values provided by the doping controls enable changes to be detected faster. However, the laboratories must not only legally prove that athletes have taken a banned substance, but also how much of it has been consumed. »This is all possible - given adequate time,« explained Grotemeyer, whose employees regularly test anonymised samples from other laboratories to provide a second opinion – a cross-check – on the samples.

»But it is not only our chemists who are good at their jobs, but unfortunately also the other side.» Doping is a multi-billion dollar business, after all. Gold medals, world records and world championships boost the fame and reputation of entire countries. »A lot is done to motivate athletes to achieve their best performances.«

The big money that can be earned through sporting events makes it tempting for associations and coaches to turn a blind eye to doping in some situations - in spite of the uniform anti-doping code. »Like the Tour de France: 80 percent of all professional cyclists apparently have such severe asthma that they need a drug to improve the absorption of oxygen prescribed by a doctor,« wonders Grotemeyer. The attitude of the International Olympic Committee also makes him angry: if a suspected case of doping is only confirmed years afterwards using the latest technology, then athletes are no longer stripped of their medals, and doping samples must now be destroyed after two years. »This makes the permanent struggle against substance abuse more and more difficult,« said Grotemeyer. »But we chemists will never give up.«

Author: Jennifer Ruske