WHISTLER, British Columbia -- On Monday, British rugby player Terry Newtonmade sports history with the announcement that he had become the first athlete to test positive for human growth hormone. Newton's positive test (out of competition) came in November, and he has been banned from rugby for two years by the United Kingdom Anti-Doping Agency.
Prior to Newton's positive test, approximately 900 HGH tests had been conducted over three Olympics -- roughly 100 in Turin, 300 in Athens and 500 in Beijing -- with no positives. Newton's result appears to lend some credence to arguments that HGH testing has evolved to the point of being worth conducting. That argument took center stage a little more than two years ago when MLB commissioner Bud Selig told the Congressional Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that he would support testing for HGH in baseball "when a valid, commercially available and practical test for HGH becomes reality, regardless of whether the test is based on blood or urine."
Anti-doping experts already felt at that time that a reliable test existed, though commercial availability of the test was coming along slowly. (Read this for a brief explanation of how the HGH test that was used in previous Olympics works).
With Newton's positive test -- the rugby player did not contest the result -- the argument that there is no reliable HGH test takes it most visceral hit to date. But don't expect to see any positives from the major American pro sports leagues anytime soon.
None of the major professional leagues requires blood tests (although on Tuesday night The New York Timesreported that MLB plans to implement blood tests for human growth hormone on minor league players). Without blood testing, not only is HGH detection essentially impossible, but none of the substances that enhance endurance can be detected. For example, certain types of blood transfusions and synthetic hemoglobin -- which allows blood to carry more oxygen -- can only be detected with blood tests. The bottom line is that if you aren't testing blood, then you aren't really trying when it comes to HGH and endurance-enhancing substances.
That said, HGH testing is still far from perfect. In a previous interview, Dr. Gary Wadler, a World Anti-Doping Agency board member, told SI that the window for detection of an HGH injection is approximately a day or two. And given that HGH is primarily a drug that is used out of competition -- unlike stimulants, which are used just before competition -- it's no surprise that HGH testing during Olympic Games has come up empty, as it has thus far in Vancouver, where officials expect to conduct a total of about 450 blood and 1,600 urine tests during these Games.
At the start of the Vancouver Games, Dr. Christian Ayotte, head of the WADA-accredited lab in Montreal which has set up shop in Vancouver to analyze blood and urine tests, said that she is anxious to improve the current HGH test. She noted that HGH is generally used in conjunction with other drugs. Some research has suggested that HGH has a synergistic effect when used with anabolic steroids. A former anabolic steroid user told Sports Illustrated that some athletes seek to pack on muscle while avoiding testing positive for steroids by taking HGH along with a dose of anabolic steroids low enough that their testosterone/epitestosterone ratio will stay below the permissible limit of 4:1. "We rely on the fact that if you take growth hormone, you will certainly take something else that is easier to detect," Ayotte said. "HGH will never be the sole doping agent."
Another strategy, the former user said, is to take HGH with a substance such as human chorionic gonadotropin, the female fertility drug that MLB investigators busted Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Manny Ramirez for using, because it does not show up in current doping tests and boosts both testosterone and epitestosterone so that the ratio will not trigger a positive test.
So the cat and mouse game of doping and detection continues, but Newton's positive test is a warning to the mice that the cats aren't napping.