Doping Detectives Stop Sunscreen From Burning Track Stars

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — They nearly burned.

Although there is nothing novel in suggesting that the 1,900 athletes who will train and compete in the sunny stadium of the world championships in athletics in Eugene, Oregon, for the next 10 days should cover themselves with sunscreen, in the complicated world of anti-doping, nothing is so simple .

Shortly after last year’s Olympics, urine samples from more than six dozen athletes who competed in Tokyo returned traces of a banned stimulant. Sanctions were looming that would change his career. But they were prevented thanks to the skillful investigation of anti-doping scientists in the US and Germany. Scientists discovered that the stimulant could be found in an ingredient in an over-the-counter sunscreen.

“I’m lathering sunscreen all over my body. People laugh at me in the office,” said Dr. Matt Fedoruk, chief scientist at the US Anti-Doping Agency, who identified the problem and also volunteered to be a test subject for the study itself. the. “I am loading urine bottles and sending them to the lab. And within 48 hours, we had the answer to our question.”

It is a problem that goes beyond the skin in all sports.

Increasingly sensitive instruments designed to detect banned substances have the ability to pick up ever more minute amounts of those substances in an athlete’s system. In some cases, athletes intentionally ingest them.

But in an increasing number of cases, banned drugs enter their systems unintentionally: through the skin via sunscreen or eyeliner, or through contaminated prescription drugs or, in the case of particularly frustrating case of American long-distance runner Shelby Houlihan, through what she says was a pork burrito tainted with traces of a banned performance-enhancing drug.

“Most labs are seeing really good technological advances,” said USADA Executive Director Travis T. Tygart. “But more importantly, the science and the rules must also move forward so that we can be sure that we are not only catching intentional cheating, but also that we are not punishing innocent athletes.”

The search for sunscreen began when Fedoruk, the USADA scientist, found it strange that two athletes from diametrically opposite worlds, a figure skater, Jessica Calalang, and a mixed martial arts fighter, Rob Font, each tested positive for 4-chlorophenoxyacetic acid (4-CPA). That substance is a metabolite of meclofenoxate, which is a banned stimulant that hadn’t been on much of the anti-doping radar for years.

Fedoruk began asking questions, and in a fortuitous twist, Font kept an extensive record of everything he had eaten or applied to his body for months. One of them was sunscreen.

A trip to the pharmacy followed. After about a week of Fedoruk and 11 other volunteers lathering themselves up with sunscreen, scientists discovered that trace amounts of 4-CPA were showing up in their urine. It comes from a preservative in sunscreen.

The news quickly spread around the world. Scientists at the anti-doping lab in Cologne, Germany, where many of the tests from the Tokyo Games were sent for analysis, also received intelligence and began looking for the metabolite in an over-the-counter muscle relaxant. in Asia.

In the end, world anti-doping officials rewrote a white paper that provided new instructions on testing thresholds for 4-CPA.

About 80 athletes at the Tokyo Games who were found to have ingested the metabolite through sunscreen did not endure the agony of having to prove their innocence in the face of charges that could have left them confused and outmatched by international anti-doping officials who sometimes , have offered little wiggle room for rule violations, no matter what the cause.

These stories don’t always end that way.

Calalang’s positive test, a result of wearing eyeliner that contained the same preservative as sunscreen, cost him eight months of legal wrangling and a place at the world championships in 2021. Ultimately, the discovery and change in the global rulebook reinstated it.

“If Jessica didn’t have the resources and support to hire an attorney to help her, this could easily have been another case where an innocent athlete ends up serving a lengthy suspension,” her attorney, Howard Jacobs, said after her reinstatement. .

There are dozens of other examples that have nothing to do with sunscreen or 4-CPA. Among them:

—U.S. Olympic middle-distance runner Brenda Martinez was announced a positive doping result for a banned diuretic, only to have any possible sanction lifted after detective work revealed the banned substance had entered her system at through a tainted antidepressant.

—An unnamed Olympic gold medalist was in a car accident, only to later test positive for a diuretic that entered the athlete’s system after receiving a post-accident blood transfusion.

—There are recent studies on how small amounts of banned substances could enter athletes’ systems through an antimalarial drug or eggs.

—New technology has led scientists to discover that about 39% of the Chinese population have a characteristic in their blood that could cause a false positive for erythropoietin (EPO), a hard-to-detect banned substance used by endurance athletes to stimulate endurance.

However, it may be too late for science to help Houlihan. The American middle-distance champion has insisted that she is not guilty doping after international authorities gave him a four-year ban when he tested positive for nandrolone. It was a case that USADA officials said they likely would not have pursued.

Houlihan said the substance came from a contaminated pork burrito he bought from a food truck. Previously, several similar cases were ruled out when athletes were able to prove that what they ate was contaminated. But that hasn’t worked for the 29-year-old running back.

Ongoing studies could produce new scientific evidence that sheds more light on complex questions about the contamination of locally sourced meat. That might eventually help prove Houlihan’s innocence, but it’s questionable whether he’d be able to reverse his case.

While that detective work continues, the sunscreen problem seems solved. Athletes can dress up without worry this week at the world championships.

“We want to be fair to the athletes,” Fedoruk said. “And we want to make sure that we can make decisions in favor of the athlete where intentional doping is not involved.”


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