BEIJING -- Over the course of the 2008 Olympics, the International Olympic Committee carried out the most extensive testing program for human-growth hormone to date. In the final days of competition, the IOC was on pace for more than 500 blood tests for HGH.
Anti-doping experts believe that HGH is one of the most widely abused drugs in elite sports, partly because of the difficulty of detection and the perceived lack of side effects. So why wasn't there a single positive test?
In fact, around 300 HGH blood tests were conducted at the Athens Games, and about 100 in Turin, and there were no positives there, either. Perhaps the testing itself serves as a deterrent, but anti-doping experts suggest that in-competition testing for HGH simply is not effective.
Dr. Gary Wadler, chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency's Prohibited List and Methods Sub-Committee, says that the HGH test is "primarily an out of competition test." He added that HGH is "not like a stimulant," that an athlete would take right before a competition, and because the window of detection for an injection of HGH is about two days, it is not difficult for an athlete to clean up their act in time for their competition.
Current research suggests that HGH, on its own, has very little, if any, performance-enhancing qualities. Studies and anecdotal evidence, however, have shown that, as New York University's Dr. Todd Schlifstein told Congress in January, HGH seems to have a "synergistic effect" when taken in conjunction with anabolic steroids.
Multiple former anabolic steroid users told Sports Illustrated that the best way for athletes to avoid testing positive for steroids is to take HGH along with a dose of anabolic steroids low enough that their testosterone/epitestosterone ratio will stay below the legal limit of 4:1.
The time of using the HGH-with-anabolic-steroids strategy with impunity, however, maybe be drawing to a close. In the months prior to the Games, for the first time, WADA labs around the world were provided with HGH test kits. Even though HGH tests had been used at the previous Summer and Winter Games, testers ran out of antibody needed to conduct the test when the company that was producing it was taken over, and stopped production. Now, however, the test is commercially available for the first time, and Wadler says he expects WADA to begin out-of-competition HGH testing.
As for the strategy of combining HGH and lower doses anabolic steroids to avoid detection, Wadler expects that "this paradigm will change as more out-of-competition testing is done."
It has been a long time coming, but the very first positive HGH test of an athlete shouldn't be far off.