Sports doping is an eternal arms race. You have black-market chemists making undetectable ‘designer drugs,’ and you have anti-doping agencies coming up with more and more sophisticated tests in response. Sadly, the dopers are winning right now, and few sports are ‘pure.’ Many athletes – perhaps most – at the 2012 Olympics may be doping in some form or fashion.
But I can’t shake the feeling all this anti-doping testing might be sports’ Maginot Line – we’re so focused on doping that we may get caught flat-footed by types of cheating we don’t expect. Performance degradation of competitors comes to mind.
Let’s put on our mad scientist caps and talk heat rays. Consider how easy it would be to hide a low-power, directional microwave array in standard AV/broadcast equipment – basically a set of dishes that can focus energy at some distant point and heat it up a bit. Something that could be aimed at, say, a runner and heat up their interior tissue just enough to hurt their performance.
Tissue overheating, it turns out, is one of the biggest factors that degrade performance. Something like this – essentially a directional version of a microwave oven – wouldn’t hurt anyone at low power levels, but by heating up their tissues and core temperature it could sap a few percent off their peak performance/endurance. Which is easily the difference between a gold and a bronze medal, or a having a killer fourth quarter vs. getting rotated out for exhaustion.
The tech is actually really simple … you’d need to find the right wavelength and power intensity to penetrate skin and heat tissue (but not too much), you’d need to disguise the equipment (it’d look like a handful of DirectTV dishes*), you’d need a clear line-of-sight to the athletes, and you’d need some way to control it. Maybe you’d have one of your “camera guys” point-and-shoot it manually, or you could write some software to track targets automatically. Governments could use this to cheat at the Olympics; pro sports teams could use this to tire-out key opponents. It’d be a slimy way to win, but effective.
So, what are the chances something like this will get used in London 2012? Or that it was used in Beijing 2008? Non-zero, I’d say. And unlike doping, which leaves traces in blood and urine samples which can be analyzed years later with more sophisticated tests, this would leave no trace. Just some momentary, inexplicable fatigue.
*Since microwaves effortlessly pass through many materials, you could presumably hide these dishes *inside* boxes or other props.
Excerpts from a Spiegel interview with Angel Heredia, once a doping dealer and now a chief witness for the U.S. Justice Department:
… He had been in hiding under an assumed name in a hotel in Laredo, Texas, for two years when the FBI finally caught up with him. The agents wanted to know from Angel Heredia if he knew a coach by the name of Trevor Graham, whether he carried the nickname “Memo”, and what he knew about doping. “No”, “no”, “nothing” – those were his replies. But then the agents laid the transcripts of 160 wiretapped telephone conversations on the table, as well as the e-mails and the bank statements. That’s when Angel “Memo” Heredia knew that he had lost. He decided to cooperate, and he also knew that he would only have a chance if he didn’t lie – not a single time. “He’s telling the truth,” the investigators say about Heredia today.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Heredia, will you watch the 100-meter final in Beijing?
Heredia: Of course. But the winner will not be clean. Not even any of the contestants will be clean.
SPIEGEL: Of eight runners …
Heredia: … eight will be doped.
SPIEGEL: And how did you become the best in your world?
Heredia: With precision. You want an example? Everyone talks about EPO. EPO is fashionable. But without adding iron, epo only works half as well. That’s the kind of thing you have to know. There are oxygen carriers that make EPO work incredibly fast – they are actually better than epo alone. I call my drug “EPO Boost.” I inject it and it releases many tiny oxygen molecules throughout the body. In that way you increase the effect of EPO by a factor of ten.
SPIEGEL: Do you have any other secrets?
Heredia: Oh yes, of course. There are tablets for the kidneys that block the metabolites of steroids, so when athletes give a urine sample, they don’t excrete the metabolites and thus test negative. Or there is an enzyme that slowly consumes proteins – EPO has protein structures, and the enzyme thus ensures that the B sample of the doping test has a completely different value than the A sample. Then there are chemicals that you take a couple of hours before the race that prevent acidification in the muscles. Together with EPO they are an absolute miracle. I’ve created 20 different drugs that are still undetectable for the doping testers.
SPIEGEL: Is there doping at every level of athletics?
Heredia: Yes, the only difference is the quality of the doping. Athletes with little money use simple steroids and hope they don’t get tested. The stars earn $50,000 a month, not including starting bonuses and shoe sponsorship contracts. The very best invest $100,000 – I’ll then build you a designer drug that can’t be detected.
SPIEGEL: Explain how this works.
Heredia: Designer drugs are composed of several different chemicals that trigger the desired reaction. At the end of the chain I change one or two molecules in such a way that the entire structure is undetectable for the doping testers.
SPIEGEL: The drug testers’ hunt of athletes …
Heredia: … is also a sport. A competition. Pure adrenaline. We have to be one or two years ahead of them. We have to know which drug is entering research where, which animals it is being used in, and where we can get it. And we have to be familiar with the testers’ methods.
SPIEGEL: Can the testers win this race?
Heredia: Theoretically yes. If all federations and sponsors and managers and athletes and trainers were all in agreement, if they were to invest all the money that the sport generates and if every athlete were to be tested twice a week – but only then. What’s happening now is laughable. It’s a token. They should save their money – or give it to me. I’ll give it to the orphans of Mexico! There will be doping for as long as there is commercial sports, performance-related shoe contracts and television contracts.
SPIEGEL: Are there still any clean disciplines?
Heredia: Track and field, swimming, cross-country skiing and cycling can no longer be saved. Golf? Not clean either. Soccer? Soccer players come to me and say they have to be able to run up and down the touchline without becoming tired, and they have to play every three days. Basketball players take fat burners – amphetamines, ephedrin. Baseball? Haha. Steroids in pre-season, amphetamines during the games. Even archers take downers so that their arm remains steady. Everyone dopes.
Anthropologist John Hawks on doping:
John Leonard, executive director of the American Swimming Coaches Association, told of conversations he has had with coaches and scientists in China.
“We are really naive if we are to believe that the Chinese at this point are clean or that they are the only country in the world that is experimenting with genetic enhancement as we speak,” said Leonard, who was not a panelist but attended the conference and spoke during question-and-answer periods.
“There are lots of countries in the world who couldn’t care less about doing it safely, and there are lots of athletes who will take the chance that they will die in order to win medals. … Will the United States have the same viewpoint when we start losing gold medals?”
But really, there are plenty of people who would stand in line to trade 20 years of their lives to win an Olympic medal. And many who think that the current winners are simple beneficiaries of a genetic lottery. As soon as genetic modifications become routine to correct developmental problems, the kids who had them will start coming up through the sports ranks. The way it stands now, the Olympics and other sports venues are staging themselves as some of the last arbiters of “pure” humanity.
About the author: Johnson is the official mad scientist of TVFury. He’s like a shooting star: very bright and with no visible means of support. Check out his blog at OpenTheory.net.