Could Health Precautions in Rio Trip Up Athletes’ Drug Tests?
20 Apr, 2016By: Mary Helen Sprecher
While meldonium might be an honorary four-letter word (sorry, Maria Sharapova), it’s not the only thing that has Olympic athletes’ hackles up these days.
With the Games inching closer, many athletes are inescapably caught between the rock of drug-testing and the hard place of needing to protect themselves from Zika, polluted water and anything else that comes along in Rio. Which of course, raises the question: how likely is it that a positive drug test will come as a result of some the precautions being taken?
It is a fair question. With the health landscape in Rio in flux and officials trying to eradicate many of the threats, a lot of chemicals are going around via the insecticides and repellants being sprayed into the air and around all areas where athletes will be. Not much anyone can do about coming into contact with those.
Add to that threat the fact that many athletes are expected to take antibiotics in order to help prevent illness (or treat it), and the fact that others may be ingesting vitamins, antioxidants and other compounds to boost their immune system prior to exposure. And while the latter are things athletes can control, they also represent precautions they may want to take, and even need to take, in order to give themselves the best possible shot at a good performance in August.
Then there’s the other specter of becoming immersed in or exposed to the polluted waters of Rio, or being bitten by a mosquito carrying Zika (or another virus.) Not everything is known about these pathogens and the effect they could have on a drug test.
Could any of these trip up an athlete who has done nothing wrong?
With anti-doping controls stricter than ever, and the rules changing as more substances are added to the list of banned chemicals, athletes say they’re justifiably worried about what might result from their precautions.
According to an article in Inside The Games, Rio officials, along with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and the World Anti-Doping agency (WADA) have prepared a special list of FAQs for those who are headed off to the Games – and who are worried about such matters.
In terms of preventive treatments that athletes might take, the official statement follows: “Currently, USADA is unaware of any vaccination, treatments, or prevention measures for Zika virus that impact anti-doping at the Games.”
It also recommends those with concerns review recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control.
In an effort to calm the rising panic, USADA has also listed several common active ingredients in U.S. brand-name mosquito repellents that are not prohibited.
WADA says it’s unlikely that athletes could ingest one or more banned substances by coming into contact with the water in Guanabara Bay, where much of Rio de Janeiro's untreated sewage flows. (In fact, WADA unequivocally states that athletes cannot test positive for prohibited substances that way.) Not that athletes are taking a lot of comfort in the fact that they will be exposed to sewage and garbage, rather than steroids or other substances. (“However,” the agency has noted, “should athletes fall ill, they should always be vigilant to check any medications or treatment methods against the WADA Prohibited List.”)
Unfortunately, scientists have long held that sewage is a barometer of any city’s drug use, with many substances, including amphetamines, showing up in wastewater. According to the Home Testing Blog, a few findings from sewage tests have included:
• In London, cocaine and ecstasy spike on weekends while methadone is used more consistently.
• In Italy, cocaine use has declined while use of marijuana and amphetamines has increased.
• In Sweden and Finland, people use more amphetamines and methamphetamine and less cocaine than other European cities.
• In Finland, stimulants were more common in large cities.
• In Zagreb, Croatia, marijuana and heroin were the most commonly found illicit drugs, but cocaine and ecstasy showed up more frequently on weekends.
Ecstasy, marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, stimulants – they’re all things that would be frowned upon by the WADA. Of course, it is not yet known whether the amounts of any drugs that might show up in Rio’s waters would be enough to trip up the increasingly sensitive drug tests being used on athletes. However, with the WADA already reconsidering its stance on meldonium in the wake of more than 175 drug-test failures, it’s likely the agency will have to work hard – in limited time – to create guidelines that are fair to athletes who are about to be unwittingly exposed to chemicals in Rio.