Highly regarded lab ensures that Olympic athletes are ‘clean’
Professor Anthony Butch in the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory, which he directs.
Anthony Butch is not an athlete or coach, but he and his team had to undergo their own kind of Olympic time trials before the Games opened in London.
Just a few weeks ago, Butch and his staff at UCLA’s Olympic Analytical Laboratory
were working furiously to process hundreds of urine samples from members of the 2012 U.S. Olympic team. The testing had to be done quickly, since a positive result meant that the athlete would have to be replaced with an alternate.
As one of only two drug-testing labs in the United States accredited by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)), UCLA’s lab split the samples with the country’s other lab in Salt Lake City. They had 150 days in which to receive the samples, test them and submit their reports to the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). (To see a listing of athletes who have been sanctioned, go here
.) Together, the two labs completed the testing on time, and 500-plus American athletes made it to London for the start of the Games.
But the testing doesn’t stop there. The athletes are being tested while they stay in the Olympic Village, and winners are automatically required to submit urine samples immediately after their competition is over. But Butch and his staff have done their part: Any remaining testing must now be done in a lab that was set up specifically for the Games in the town of Harlow, in Essex County, England.
"[Before] the Games is when the testing is most valuable, in my opinion," said Butch, a UCLA professor of pathology and laboratory medicine and director of UCLA’s drug-testing facility. "If you’re going to dope, and if you expect to win at an event, you know you’re going to be tested afterward, so you don’t take the stuff. You want to take it before because it allows you to work out harder and to recover from strenuous workouts faster. And that’s when we catch most of them."
Samples submitted by athletes
Even though their Olympic duties are complete, Butch and his staff of scientists are as busy as ever, analyzing samples from one of their other big clients: Major League Baseball’s minor league program. And soon they’ll be receiving thousands of samples from the National Football League, whose players are currently in training camp.
The lab’s other clients include the NCAA, various high schools, the U.S. Department of Defense, the PGA (both men’s and women’s), the California State Athletic Commission, the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (boxing) and, of course, the USADA, which includes the Olympic athletes.
Founded in 1982 by a grant from the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, the UCLA facility was the first U.S. laboratory to be accredited by the International Olympic Committee. The UCLA lab — indeed, all drug-testing labs — must adhere strictly to WADA’s codebook, which is hundreds of pages long and details everything related to drug testing, including compliance, presence of violations, possession, analysis of samples, consequences for team sanctioning and confidentiality.
Every year, WADA submits an updated list of prohibited substances that currently includes 250 compounds and several prohibited methods, such as tampering and gene doping. There is also WADA’s "International Standards for Laboratories," a 90-page document that includes information about accreditation, facilities, requirements for lab directors and certification of scientists.
All WADA-accredited labs follow a very specific method for preparing urine samples for analysis, Butch explained. "You pee into a cup, and you pour it into two bottles, A and B. They’re sealed. The A bottle we screen, and the B bottle is put into the freezer. If we find any substances in the A bottle, we go forward and do a confirmation test of that bottle. Typically, one batch is 20 samples. We screen for hundreds of compounds at a time."
Receiving scientist Yvonne Chambers holds A and B bottles containing urine from a single athlete.
If the confirmation yields a second positive result, Butch’s staff would report it as an adverse finding. If there are no extenuating circumstances, such as a therapeutic use exemption, the testing authority (USADA, WADA or the organization that provided the sample) would then decide whether or not to sanction the athlete. Sanctions could range from a public warning to a lifetime ban.
An athlete has the right to appeal the finding, Butch said. "But they never argue about the science. Detecting the compound is solid, forensically correct science. What they dispute is the chain of custody. Everywhere that sample goes, we have to document it — where it is, who touched it and all that. They look for irregularities: The date’s wrong, it isn’t initialed, there’s a place where the sample is not accounted for. Or they look for clerical mistakes. They want to go through all the paperwork to find irregularities so that they can build a case that the lab does not do good testing."
When appealing a sanction, an athlete can ask to witness the opening and testing of the B bottle, Butch said. This happened during last year’s Gold Cup soccer competition, when several members of the Mexican team received positive results from their drug tests, done at UCLA’s lab. The Gold Cup medical doctor brought new urine samples to the lab, and the soccer players came to the lab to witness the opening of the B bottles.
Somehow the media got wind of this, and it was a feeding frenzy, Butch said. The lab’s science research associates had to deal with media who wanted to come into the lab and interview the players. The scientists were also forced to escort the athletes, as well as their representatives, at all times while they were in the laboratory. "I think we did seven or eight B openings in the period of three days of testing, which was really disruptive," Butch said.
Ultra-cold freezers store tested urine samples for possible retesting years later.
Even without their suspended players, the Mexican team beat the U.S. in the final, becoming the Gold Cup champions. It was later determined that the clenbuterol that had been found in the Mexican players’ systems was due to meat contamination. They had apparently eaten meat that had been contaminated with clenbuterol, which is used to fatten up steers.
All told, Butch and his staff of scientists analyze approximately 50,000 samples a year out of two plain buildings — one tan-colored, one cinder-block — in a nondescript section of West Los Angeles. In Butch’s five years as director, the UCLA lab has never had a case that didn’t go forward (unless the athlete had a therapeutic use exemption that was unknown at the time of testing). Butch has been called to testify on behalf of the lab’s findings on a handful of occasions, and every time, the result was upheld.
"[The athletes we test have] a positive rate of less than 2 percent, which is quite low," Butch said. "I don’t know if that means that we’re scaring people into not doping, or that they’re smarter than we are. It’s probably a little bit of both."