THE BURDEN OF PROOF
Drug testing in sport is nowadays an unpalatable necessity.
Because as the pressures and rewards have increased for competitors, so has the temptation to cheat.
A huge range of performance-enhancing substances and techniques are available now to athletes who decide to try and improve on nature by illegal means.
And as the technology of cheating has become more sophisticated, the technology of detection has been forced to keep pace.
Sport’s officiating bodies now have extremely powerful forensic techniques on hand to try and deal with drug-taking. But it’s not just a question of trying to catch 100% of wrongdoers.
It’s equally important to ensure that no athlete is ever wrongfully accused.
But Diane Modahl’s case showed that it can happen.
Diane Modahl was one of Britain’s fastest runners, and the defending gold medalist in the 1994 Commonweath Games 800m event.
She was confident she could win again - and she did. But a routine drug test after the race was the start of a personal and professional nightmare.
High levels of testosterone were found in her urine and she was suspended from further competitions.
She knew she was clean. But until then no athlete accused of drug-taking had succeeded in clearing their name, so her chances looked slim.
Nonetheless, she and her husband and coach Vincente decided to fight the authorities. They felt they had no alternative, because they knew that if they didn’t fight, her reputation would be ruined and she would never race again.
But it was not easy. “The burden of proof was on us,” Diane remembers, “but we were in no position to do that. We were not scientists.”
Diane and Vincente had to learn to speak the scientific jargon - fast. Without that they couldn’t question the experts or talk to the people who had executed the trials. Over the weeks and months, they became well versed in terminology such as “metabolites”, “pH values”, and “mass spectrometry”.
Meanwhile, several key scientists from other laboratories were requested to re-examine the original results of the urine test.
Simon Gaskell from UMIST was one of them. "The original request was to look at the data from the Lisbon lab, and assess whether those analyses had been performed in a satisfactory manner.
My assessment showed there were some serious flaws in the way the analysis had been performed, not least in the way the sample had been stored immediately prior to analysis.”
The sample certainly contained very high amounts of testosterone - but something didn’t add up Because when testosterone is injected or ingested, the body normally produces chemicals called metabolites.
These were mysteriously missing from Diane’s sample... Also an extremely high pH level suggested the the urine sample had degraded while in the lab, which raised questions about the storage of the sample.
A theory began to emerge. Perhaps in the summer heat of Portugal delayed refrigeration kickstarted a bacterial growth in the urine, a byproduct of which was an increased level of testosterone in the sample....
Professor Gaskell was asked to perform experiments to test this hypothesis. He showed that indeed in these conditions testosterone would be created.
His results were submitted in Diane’s defence .
Eventually after several years of hearings and appeals, Diane’s name was finally cleared.
The case had an impact on sport across the board. It led to renewed emphasis on getting the procedure right.
Former gold-medalist David Hemery was elected as the first President of UK Athletics in 1998. He’s a vehement anti-drug crusader, and agrees that a ‘false positive’ result is the worst outcome possible, not just for an individual athlete but for athletics in general.
But he says until scientists fully understand the body’s intricate biochemical processes, there could be room for error.
A worrying scenario would arise, he says, if at some point in the future scientists discover more about naturally occurring chemicals in the body, and it becomes clear some athletes may have been wrongly banned along the way...
Fortunately the technology for detection is improving all the time.
It’s already possible to measure the presence of a chemical down to one part in a billion, which means an individual molecule can be analysed.
And since an atomic fingerprint can reveal whether a molecule has been produced by the body or is an alien molecule that’s been injected or ingested, this could herald an era of precision drug-testing in future.
As ever - the research work continues
First broadcast: Friday 15 Oct 1999 on BBC TWO