BEIJING — During the final days of the Summer Games, countries tally gold medals and total medals and proclaim success or failure. But there is one number that defies easy interpretation: as of Saturday, there had been just six announced positive tests for performance-enhancing drugs, far fewer than the 30 to 40 that International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge predicted among the 10,500 athletes at the Games.
Some testing officials say the relatively few positive tests — given the significant advances in drug-testing technology and approaches in recent years — suggest drug use is being deterred.
Critics argue the exact opposite, that the numbers sugest more cheaters are skirting through loopholes in the testing system.
Drug tests are supposed to have a dual purpose: to sweep performance-enhancing drug users off the playing field and prove that those who pass the tests are drug free. But even 40 years after drug testing became an integral component of Olympic competition and in an era of heightened vigilance and sophistication in drug-testing operations, it remains impossible to say whether either goal was met during these 16-day Games — a fact that provides endless frustration for athletes and officials.
“The big issue with results is: Are we seeing less positives because doping is cleaned up, or because athletes have gotten smarter and moved on to other drugs?”’ said Don Catlin, chief executive of the U.S. Anti-Doping Research Institute and a member of the IOC’s medical commission. “We have no way of knowing that.”
Catlin and other anti-doping officials say they have made steady progress in bringing competence and confidence to drug-testing efforts over the past five years, pointing to enhanced testing methods, more targeted testing and increasing cooperation with law enforcement agencies willing to share hard evidence of drug use among athletes. The IOC has also vowed to save urine and blood samples for eight years to provide an opportunity to re-examine them as better tests are discovered.
Even so, officials acknowledge their bottom-line problem: They can completely miss a cheater. That fact was underscored last fall when American track star Marion Jones, now serving a six-month jail sentence for lying to federal authorities about her drug use, admitted she took steroids during the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney. She won five medals there, but never flunked a drug test.
By the end of the Beijing Olympics, the IOC had conducted about 4,500 tests. That’s about 25 percent more than were performed in Athens in 2004, which resulted in 26 positive tests.
“We’re using much more intelligent testing and targeted testing,” said Arne Ljungqvist, the chairman of the IOC’s medical commission. “I feel the sport is becoming more clean and people probably understand that doping is not the way to go.”
Ljungqvist’s point might be arguable, but there is one issue about which there is no debate.
“Doping will never be something entirely of the past,” IAAF President Lamine Diack said. “We will always have people who cheat.”