Olympic officials recently announced anti-doping plans for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi: they were to be the “most stringent ever,” with about 2,450 tests—57 percent more than the last Winter Olympics in Vancouver—and a particular focus on sports deemed a higher risk for doping, such as ice hockey.
But while the International Olympic Committee stresses a zero-tolerance policy, hopes for a completely doping-free Games (as with any major sporting event) seem overly optimistic.
An undercover investigation by German journalists, which first aired on German TV on Sunday, claimed to uncover a Russian scientist who was willing to sell a new anti-doping agent—one that couldn’t be detected with current tests.
Reporting for German broadcaster WDR, Hajo Seppelt and his colleagues went to Moscow to meet with a scientist who claimed he had optimised a certain compound for doping purposes. Seppelt pretended to be a consultant to German Olympic athletes, and the scientist—who is referred to in the broadcast only as M, from the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow—gave him a test sample of the wonder-drug before offering to sell him much more. Seppelt secretly filmed their meetings.
I put in a call to Seppelt to find out more about the investigation. He said he’d been tipped off about the Russian scientist years earlier, by someone who had seen him speak at a conference and was concerned about how openly he talked about the substance’s doping potential.
He met with the scientist last week in Moscow. “I had a hidden camera with me and then the discussion began,” said Seppelt. “First he was a little bit careful, but then he was very open and offered to arrange to give me a kind of test quantity to test if the substance is really the right one.”
Seppelt arranged to pick up one milligram of the substance at Belarus station in Moscow—“It was like a crime story,” he says—and took it back to Germany to be analysed. The one milligram was given to him as a sample, but it’s not an insignificant amount. “With one milligram you can really dope at least one or two persons,” said Seppelt.
You can watch his televised report here (in German) or a shorter version in English here. In it, Seppelt takes the substance to a lab at the German Sports University in Cologne, which is accredited by the World Anti-Doping Agency. There, doping expert Mario Thevis confirms that the drug is what the scientist claimed: a new substance known as Full Size MGF.
WADA's David Howman was alarmed by the German reporters' discovery. Image: European Parliament/Flickr
Full Size MGF is similar to the insulin-like growth factor IGF-1, or what you might remember as the “deer antler spray” NFL players were accused of using a while back—but better. It aids muscle growth, and Thevis said it would be classified as “highly effective.” Because it’s new, anti-doping tests don’t test for it and wouldn’t pick it up.
Still posing as an athletes’ advisor, Seppelt was later offered a much larger quantity of Full Size MGF—100 milligrams for $100,000—to be delivered before the Sochi Games, which start on Friday. He declined the offer.
The journalists took their findings to the World Anti-Doping Agency, where Director General David Howman was shocked by the investigation, but realistic about the phenomenon of doping. “I think we would be naive if we though that every athlete going to a major event, like the Olympic Games in Sochi, would be clean,” he told the German broadcast.
It’s an uphill struggle: as tests evolve, so do performance-enhancing substances, so there’s always something new that testers don’t know about. Thevis was the same specialist to suggest that up to 100 undetectable EPO-like drugs could have been designed before the London Olympics in summer 2012. But these substances don’t just give athletes an unfair advantage; they can also present a health risk.
Full Size MGF has only been tested on animals; it was being investigated for its biochemical effects at the Russian facility. Its effects on humans, therefore, are largely unknown. Seppelt said the scientist who offered him the substance didn’t care who might use it. “That was very shocking for me, those words.”
He’s keen for people to be aware of what they found, but is doubtful the mainstream Russian press will pick up on the story.
This piece has been changed to reflect the following correction: Seppelt picked up the sample at Belarus station in Moscow, not at a station in Belarus.